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In The West Wing, characters use the expression "full lid" to mean that there's no more news for the day:

That's a full lid, folks.

That much is obvious from context, and for the context-impaired, the internet spells it out. In fact, the internet suggests this idiom was invented by the show.

I know what it means, but I really can't make sense of why it means that. Can someone explain the implicit metaphor? What thing from common experience has a lid that becomes filled? And how does fullness represent an ending or hiatus?

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Two possibilities:

  1. A full-lid box is one where the lid is the same size (or slightly bigger, even) then the rest of the box, so when you package something up and put the lid on the box it covers it completely; think of a gift-box for dress shirts as a common example. A full-lid box is in opposition to other types of lids, such as a half-lid (think of a shoe box), a top-lid (like a rubbermaid storage tub), a clamshell lid (a laptop computer), etc.

    Full lids are often used for storage, packaging for shipping, and so forth, because they are considered more secure; there's little chance that the lid will come off the box. What's more, because the lid covers the box, it facilitates adding even more security in a much easier way (think how easy it is to put a little tape on the sides of a gift box to hold the lid in place; that wouldn't work with a top-lid, for example). So the metaphor could be that, in saying "that's a full-lid, folks," it's like saying "we've boxed our info up tight and stuck it in storage," so they shouldn't expect any more out of the 'package' that day.

  2. In the 60s and 70s, a full-lid referred to roughly an ounce of marijuana put into a sandwich bag. The term comes from the bags with the fold-over top (the folded piece being the 'lid'), and when the marijuana reached the lid (so about a finger's width less than the bag's height, since the lid folded down) it was close enough to an ounce to sell without needing scales to weigh. One could imagine, then, that the metaphor is saying that, when the news is a 'full-lid,' it's ready to be 'sold' (i.e. nothing else will be measured out that day).

I have no evidence that either of these are the actual source for the phrase, but there doesn't seem to be any other uses of the term 'full lid' in historical american English.

Also note that despite many claims that The West Wing coined the term, Kenneth Walsh's biography Feeding the Beast indicates that it was at least in use when the book was published in 1996 (in use by Clinton's press secretary, Dee-Dee Myers, whom C.J. Cregg was modeled on).

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    What about the phrase “keep a lid on it”, meaning to not talk about it? I was thinking it could be related because the press secretary could be saying, “we’re keeping a lid on all other news until the next scheduled briefing, so you can all go home or whatever and return at that time.” That occurred to me after I learned about the “lunchtime lid”, which means “no more news until after lunchtime”. – Todd Wilcox Jul 20 '18 at 13:05
  • I was gonna mention the marijuana reference, which is probably appropriate given the age of the characters. – Johnny Bones Jul 20 '18 at 13:50
  • I very much doubt that they'd knowingly adopt a drug reference for everyday use. It was the WH, and it wasn't purely internal: it was a routine part of their communication with external news agencies. – Tom Jul 22 '18 at 4:21

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