Wordy Wednesday – “Be-all and end-all”

Macbeth:

If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ 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,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come…”

Macbeth Act 1, scene 7, 1–7

Macbeth speaks of an action, not a person or thing; he wonders if that action will be all that is required and end all that he must go through to be king. We refer to what is all it can possibly be and ends all competition, or to something that overrides all the normal limits. Macbeth would like his deed to be limited, while we admire a nearly unlimited excellence, or a passion without bounds.

Current usage:

We use “the be-all and the end-all” in two rather different ways, neither of which pays much respect to Macbeth’s intention.

  1. On one hand, the be-all and the end-all is something superlative in its category—a paragon or an extreme.
  2. On the other hand, the be-all and the end-all is an all-consuming project or passion—an idée fixe.

Both uses, which meet somewhere in the vicinity of “the last word in the matter,” pick up on the literal meaning of Macbeth’s words while slighting the context.

Now it’s your turn: How do you use this expression?

By Christian Albarrán

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