‘the whole box and dice’: meaning and origin

Especially as the whole box and dice, the colloquial phrase box and dice denotes a group of things or people in its entirety.—Synonyms: the whole boodle and the whole caboodle.

In the phrase box and dice, box refers to a box from which dice are thrown in gaming or gambling.

This use of box is first recorded in The sanctuarie of saluation, helmet of health, and mirrour of modestie and good maners wherein is contained an exhortation vnto the institution of Christian, vertuous, honest, and laudable life, very behoouefull, holsome and fruitfull both to highest and lowest degrees of men, which desire either health of bodie, or saluation of soule: Written in Latin verie learnedly and elegantlie by Leuinus Lemnius of Zirizaa Phisition 1, and englished by H.K. for the common commoditie and comfort of them which vnderstand not the Latine tongue, and to be as it were a glasse, wherein men may behold their life and conuersation (London: Hugh Singleton, 1592):

As for the playes of Dice, & Cards, and all other vaine delights of idle persons, see that thou eschew them, as a thing most hurtfull, shameful, and ignominious. For in such games no cunning skill preuaileth, but craft, deceit, guile, sleight, and subtiltie: neither doth consideration, aduisement or wisedome take place, but chaunce, fortune, temeritie and rashnesse. The dice comprehendeth euery kinde of play that is subiect to the mutabilitie of fortune, as draughts, casting of dice out of a boxe or out of the hand, chests-play, & all kind of dice casting or table-play.

1 Levinus Lemnius (1505-1568) was a Dutch physician and author.

The nouns box and dice have long been used in collocation—for example in the following from The Newcastle Courant (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Saturday 4th March 1749:

The Speech of a GHOST, to a Club near St.——s’s.

It was the dead Hour of Night. The Sensible, the Prudent, and the Good, in undisturb’d Repose, now clos’d their Eyes. But in yon Fane, where impious Rites are nightly paid to that strange Sorceress, whose malignant Influence enslaves the Noblest and corrupts the Best, all were awake. Enthron’d upon a gorgeous Seat the Dæmon sate; Doubt and Anxiety were visible in her haggard Looks, Impatience and Uneasiness in all her Motions. She was attended by two Pages, Idleness and Folly. On one Side of her rose a Pile of unopen’d Cards, which Idleness distributed amongst her Votaries. On the other was spread a loose disordered Heap, on which lay Folly building them into Castles. Her left Hand held a Box and Dice, an ebon Wand waved in her right, and whom she touch’d grew mad.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase box and dice that I have found:

1-: From The Australian. A Commercial, Political, and Literary Journal (Sydney, New South Wales) of Friday 21st November 1828:


There was a curious kick-up in the Police Office on Tuesday. One of their Worships had on the previous morning, with a crew of constables, taken boat, and directing his course over to the North Shore, disembarked, and out of a crowd of about ten score, who were enjoying a boxing match, “boned” 2 one score out of the ten score, and hied them back to a watch-house, whence being released, Captain Bunn, J, P of George-street, charged all box and dice with being most disorder-loving subjects, and they were severally sentenced.

2 Here, the verb bone means to arrest.

2-: From the proceedings of the City Court, published in The Southern Reporter, and Cork Commercial Courier (Cork, County Cork, Ireland) of Saturday 13th October 1832—here, box and dice is used adverbially:

Mr. P. J. O’Brien—Why, please your Worship, if you knew but half the doings of our City Collectors, nothing that would be imputed to them would surprise you. I don’t think we have had more than three of them during the last 30 years that has’nt made away, box and dice, with the whole taxes. There’s Alderman this, and Alderman that—and between the Aldermen and the Collectors, the people are fairly skinned—(Laughter.)

3-: From Mems. of a Member, published in The Evening Packet, and Correspondent (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Tuesday 14th May 1833:

I know of but one man hardy enough to doubt the continually progressing series of Irish multiplication; and that one—is Daniel O’Connell 3! Upon my honor, I’m not joking. Last Tuesday he—the Man of the People—the Chief Remembrancer of the eight millions of us—told the staring jowlterheads of the Lower House, that he was “prepared to shew that instead of an increase there had been a considerable diminution in the population of that country (Ireland.) Like the Negroes of the West Indies, the Irish people had decreased in point of number; and although this was an unpalatable doctrine, it was nevertheless the true one”!!!
Ha, ha, ah! How the jowlterheads did stare and gape, and nudge every man his neighbour, in utter amazement and botheration. Dan is a match for the whole box and dice of them. There is no holding him at all. He tosses them now upon one born, then upon another—tramples this one under foot—gives t’other a wipe of his tail, and gambols and bellows about the ring in defiance of them all.

3 Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) was an Irish nationalist leader and social reformer.

4-: From Irish Church Reform Bill, published in The Londonderry Sentinel, and North-West Advertiser (Derry, County Derry, Ireland) of Saturday 29th June 1833:

Nothing can equal the consternation of the Radicals and the nominees of the Jesuits throughout the Empire, at Ministers ejecting from the Bill, the clauses which allowed the property of the Church to be applied to secular purposes. Spoliation, and not Reform, was what the rapacious infidels had in view, and now that they are disappointed in this, their indignation knows no bounds. Accordingly we find the portion of the press under their controul [sic] pouring forth fearful invectives against the present Ministry; the very men whom they lauded to the skies a few months ago, are now taunted and abused by them. Mr. Stanley, in one of these Radical Journals, is called the “slave legislator,” and the beautiful epithet of “pig-headed politician” is applied to Lord Althorp. Nor is this all—the King and the Bench of Bishops are threatened with being unceremoniously escorted to a lunatic asylum. Just read the following extract from the Newry Examiner—it is truly amusing, and breathes a tone of whining disappointment, which proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the mind which concocted it to be “ill at ease.”:—
“The rascally venal press in London were calling upon the people to rebel in favour of the Whigs, when the vagabonds knew as well as their life, that the people would not turn the heel to where the toe is to save Whig and Whiggery from being hanged and gibbetted on one rope. They were threatening our good old sailor King with being hanged to the yard-arm, while the truth is, that the people, were they aroused in their wrath, would eschew capital punishment, and nothing worse to him and the whole Bench of Bishops, with whom he is in correspondence, than send the whole box and dice to a lunatic asylum.”

5-: From Cork Corporate Enquiry, published in The Southern Reporter, and Cork Commercial Courier (Cork, County Cork, Ireland) of Tuesday 29th October 1833:


Mr. W. M‘Carthy said, that Mr. Ballard was now ready to give testimony as to the public charities of the city, and to show the comparative amount of subscription given towards their support by Protestants and Catholics.
Mr. E. Bullen—ln this calculation which Mr. Ballard intends to strike, he does not take into account the immense number of charities of our own, which the Catholics support, and the exclusive nature of those charities which it is asserted they do not support.
Mr. Meagher—I have done more towards saving the public money, and promoting the interests of the public charities, than all the Ballards that ever were born. It is painful to speak of individual exertions; but when Mr. Ballard is brought forward as a person who can give you such valuable information upon these matters, I am bound to tell you that I am able to give evidence concerning them of a nature quite as important.
Mr. P. J. O’Brien—And I did more for the House of Industry than the whole box and dice of them—(laughter.)

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