Posted by Gary Martin on May 19, 2000
In Reply to: Re: Whole Ball of Wax posted by Peregrine on May 18, 2000
: : A big maybe, a conjecture, a true speculation:
: : One possibility was a peculiar practice used to divide estates under English law in the 17th century. The parts of the estate would be written down on scraps of paper, which would then be rolled into small balls of wax and tossed into a hat. Each beneficiary would then pick a ball from the hat, thus determining his or her share. If one of those present wasn't satisfied with the luck of the draw, tough -- whatever was inside his or her ball was "the whole ball of wax."
: In my family they made wills - going back 600 plus years - many of which are still in existence. I've not come across this 'ball of wax procedure' - it sounds quite American to me.
Bruce's speculation sounds plausible, but I'd agree with Peregrine that the phrase has an American ring to it. It certainly isn't in regular use in the UK and it doesn't appear anywhere in the OED, which is usually a good indication that it hasn't been part of the language for too long.