Since tracing the origins of words and phrases is a lifelong hobby of
mine, I really enjoyed researching this. Let's start with a bit of
info on "a whole nuther," which is a variant of "a whole other." Both
usages are heard often in the American south. I am a native of
Oklahoma, and have lived in Tennessee and Texas. Neither (nuther?) of
these colloquial phrases sounds a bit odd to me, but I've encountered
hoots of laughter and astonishment when I said "a whole nuther" in
places such as Chicago and New York City. Them durn Yankees. ;-)
Here are a few interesting online mentions of "a whole nuther" and "a
A whole nuther fascinating idiom is the expression "A whole nuther,"
which means "different," (and which shouldn't be confused with old man
Nuther, known around these parts as "A-hole Nuther.") For example, as
we have heard time and time again out here, "Pickin' yer nose is one
thang, Cletus. But stickin' yer finger in yer ear? That's a whole
nuther ball of wax."
I use "whole other" all the time ("That's a whole other ball of wax"
is a standard idiom with which I grew up; "He has a whole other idea
of how we should do this"; "He seems to be from a whole other planet"
is a non-complimentary comment which I've heard fairly often.)
Post from misc.education.language.english newsgroup
Nother - which is a word, though admittedly one more common in speech
than in formal prose - entered our language on the same path as the
non-controversial words newt and nickname.
In the days of Middle English, speakers would talk about "an ewt" (ewt
was synonymous with eft) and "an ekename" (eke meant "also," making
ekename shorthand for "another name," or "a descriptive name"). By the
15th century, an ewt had been misconstrued as "a newt" and an ekename
as "a nickname"; those misunderstandings became firmly established and
excited no complaints.
But in the 20th century, when another was misdivided into a nother and
applied to the phrase "a whole nother thing," folks sat up and took
Merriam-Webster's Word for the Wise
Nother: occurs in slang idioms such as a whole nother thing and a
whole nother story, hyperbolic renderings of another thing and another
story, wherein whole is jocularly inserted into another immediately
after the a, which is treated like the article it would normally be
before a consonant such as n. Such locutions are Casual at best.
Bartleby: The Columbia Guide to Standard American English
Now the possible origins of the phrase "the whole ball of wax":
What we do know is that the expression means "everything" (and so is
essentially the same as other American expressions like the whole nine
yards, the whole shooting match, the whole megillah, the whole shebang
and the whole enchilada). It is first recorded in the Ninth Edition of
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary of 1953, so it is presumably
somewhat older in the oral culture. It was most closely associated in
its early days with Madison Avenue advertising people...
A science-fiction novel of 1954 by Shepherd Mead...called The Big Ball
of Wax... contains this line from the narrator, a market research man,
about the story to come: "Well, why dont we go back to the beginning
and roll it all up, as the fellows say, into one big ball of wax?",
that is, put everything together to make a coherent and complete
whole. This sounds too much like a fuller and less elliptical early
version of the saying to be a coincidence. It also matches the
expansive and slightly surreal type of catchphrase (such as "let's run
it up the flagpole and see who salutes") that was common in the
advertising world in the US at this period.
Quinion: World Wide Words
Curiously enough, the first verified citation for the phrase is very
recent -- 1959 -- and "the whole ball of wax" didn't really get
rolling in popular usage until the mid-1960's. It was popular among
Madison Avenue advertising types during this period ("Let's run the
whole ball of wax up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes"), but
even at the time it gained this sudden currency lexicographers were
stumped as to its origin.
One possibility, revealed by a correspondent in a letter to my parents
(who began this column many years ago), was a peculiar practice used
to divide estates under English law in the 17th century. According to
a famous legal text of the time, 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."
THE WHOLE BALL OF WAX---Everything included.---"She got the whole ball
of wax."---Old English law. The division of land in an estate. Parcels
of land or property were written on a small piece of paper and wrapped
in a ball of wax. The balls of wax were placed in a hat and each heir
took a ball of wax and his parcel was described within. Being the only
heir you received the whole ball of wax.
Sayings & Everyday Expressions
For a look at the many variations of "whole nuther ball of wax", you
may want to browse through this long, long Google search that uses a
"wild card" to replace the "nuther," thereby enabling Google to find
all instances of the phrase "whole [something] ball of wax":
Google Web Search: "whole * ball of wax"
Search terms used:
"whole ball of wax"
"whole * ball of wax"
Thanks for a delightful quest! If anything is unclear, or if a link
does not function, please request clarification; I'll be glad to offer
further assistance before you rate my answer.