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Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2016/0211/US-Justice-Department-loses-patience-with-Ferguson-City-Council
Corey Fedde, “US Justice Department loses patience with Ferguson City Council”, 11 February 2016:

Members of the Ferguson City Council have said that financial obstacles prevent them from accepting the Department of Justices’ suggested reforms whole-cloth.

The sub-headline of this story contains a strange use of the metaphor “whole cloth”, one that I have not encountered before.

We’re all familiar with the expression, “made up out of whole cloth” (with many variants), meaning, “entirely fabricated, without any basis in fact”.  The metaphor it contains is dead—nobody who hears it thinks of its literal meaning, or even knows for sure what its literal meaning ever was—and probably has been dead for generations.

There is plenty of speculation out there about its original meaning, having to do with the idea that a suit “made of whole cloth” was made of material cut from a single bolt, not pieced together from scraps and remainders, and therefore was of superior quality.  One can imagine an analogy between facts compiled into a story, and scraps stitched together into a suit; though why an inferior sort of suit should suggest a superior sort of story (or vice-versa) is not clear to me.  In a 1998 “On Language” column in the New York Times, William Safire pretty much confesses that he has no idea where the expression comes from or how it got its present, unfavorable, meaning.

I suspect that at one time the phrase “made from whole cloth” was widely familiar with reference to garments, and that some wit applied it to a story he deemed utterly false, without really reflecting on the precise reference of the metaphor; and, the image being vivid and amusing, it just caught on.  (Nobody really knows the literal meaning of “by the skin of my teeth,” either, but it’s a great expression nonetheless.)

At any rate, the writer for the Christian Science Monitor is thinking of none of this when she or he writes of accepting reforms “whole-cloth”.  Here, the phrase seems to mean,  “as a whole”.  The phrase itself is a noun phrase in the form, adjective + noun; but the hyphen linking the two words makes them a unit, which functions as an adverb, modifying the verb (or gerund), accepting.  I’ve tried to think of an analogous expression, but I don’t think I’ve succeeded.

The nearest I can come is backhand, as in, “A sore elbow prevented him from hitting the ball backhand,” backhand, of course, being two words stuck together, but maybe not adjective + noun.  (What part of speech is back, in that expression?)  Another possibility is whole-hog, as in, “She attacked her new task whole-hog;” but I’m not sure that’s really idiomatic.  Help me out, Dear Reader.

At any rate, can this new use of whole-cloth represent a new life-in-death for the old metaphor?  Let’s just hope it’s only a chance solecism by some sleep-deprived copy editor in Boston, who really knew better.

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