Have you ever heard of something described as the “end all be all”? Did you know what the expression meant? If not, don’t worry. We’ll explore its definition here.
What Does End All Be All Mean?
Put simply, the idiom end all be all describes something of the utmost importance—a person or thing that is absolutely essential and seen as the best. In fact, whatever is said to be someone’s “end all be all” is so wonderful and vital in their eyes that it often ends their search for anything greater; they’re convinced better doesn’t exist. It’s their main concern and focus, and their main purpose and goal. You can also think of end all be all as meaning “the whole thing.”
If you’re looking for a synonym for the expression, one option is the French phrase raison d’être, which Merriam-Webster defines as “reason or justification for existence.” In other words, the person, place, or thing that is so important to someone, it’s the reason they live and breathe.
The phrase end all be all can be written in a variety of ways. The order of the words can be flipped, and they can be joined together with and. You’ll see the expression written with and without hyphens. All of the options below are correct forms of the idiom end all be all:
- Be all end all
- End all and be all
- Be all and end all
- End-all and be-all
- Be-all and end-all
Typically, the phrase is preceded by the and often not the. Each of the forms above can be pluralized with the addition of an s after each all.
Here are some example sentences using end all be all in its various forms.
- Mary’s new boyfriend is her be all end all; she’s always with him and never has time to hang out with me anymore.
- For most baseball players, winning the World Series trophy is their end all be all.
- I was so worried and anxious about passing my weekly math test until my mom reminded me it is not the be-all and end-all for my class grade.
- There’s so much to worry about with a wedding, but for me, my dress is the end-all and be-all.
- I love being a teacher: It is the be-all and end-all of my life.
The Origins of the Phrase
As is the case with many other common idioms (see below), this expression seems to have been coined by the playwright William Shakespeare, around 1605. It appears in his play Macbeth, a tragedy that tells the story of the Scottish general Macbeth, who, after receiving a prophecy that he’ll one day become King of Scotland, murders King Duncan and claims the throne for himself. Things don’t go well for Macbeth after that: He commits even more murders and becomes a tyrannical ruler before civil war ensues. Tragic, indeed!
It appears in Act 1, Scene 7, when Macbeth is thinking about killing King Duncan:
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here…
To Macbeth, it seems as if assassinating King Duncan would be the end all be all, bringing him what he so desperately wants: the crown. He doesn’t see past the killing, and feels it’s the only thing to do, that there is no better option. In other words, he believes it will be the last word on the subject of him becoming king and it is thus his ultimate goal. But as mentioned above, this isn’t the only terrible action he’ll have to commit in the play in order to get and keep the throne, and thus doesn’t turn out to be the be all end all, well, at all.
Understanding Idioms and Clichés
End all be all is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. As you’ve already discovered, these words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
Just taken as is, literally, the phrase end all be all doesn’t make much sense or mean much. Yet knowing its figurative definition, we can see that, like other idioms, the phrase conveys emotion and an idea quite concisely.
Some language experts also consider this phrase a cliché. In particular, Eric Partridge, a lexicographer (author or editor of a dictionary), thought it a cliché by the 19th century. What is a cliché? A trite, overused expression; a phrase that has perhaps become too commonplace. Interestingly, the expression doesn’t appear to be as popular today as it once was.
Other Shakespearean Sayings
William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language is undeniable. As mentioned at the start of this article, many idioms used in modern English today come from the mind and work of Shakespeare. Here are just a few other sayings to his credit:
- Kill with kindness
- Wild-goose chase
- Green-eyed monster
- Apple of my eye
- Break the ice
- Pure as the driven snow
- Alas, poor Yorick
- It’s (all) Greek to me
- Love is blind
- All the world’s a stage
- Heart of gold
- All that glitters is not gold
- Mortal coil
- Too much of a good thing
- All’s well that ends well
- Brevity is the soul of wit
For the figurative meanings of these idioms, consult an idioms dictionary.
End all be all means the most important element; something that is essential or one’s ultimate concern or purpose. When something is the end all be all, there is no substitution for it and thus no need to seek out alternatives to it. The idiomatic expression most likely first appeared in Shakespeare’s Macbeth around 1605. It can be written in various ways, including end-all and be-all and be-all and end-all.