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The Whole Nine Yards: 500 rounds? 
Posted: 01 January 2011 11:30 PM   [ Ignore ]
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The article http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/site/comments/whole_nine_yards_the/ makes this claim:

Many American fighter planes of the war carried up to 500 rounds for each .50 caliber machine gun on board. 500 rounds of .50 caliber ammo does indeed measure out to almost exactly 27 feet, or nine yards.

Five hundred rounds in 9 yards works out to (9 * 36) / 500 = 0.648 inches per round. This is impossible because the cartridge for .50 BMG is 0.804 inches wide. You also need to add something for the link, which takes up space as well. A can of 105 cartridges measures 98 inches, so I suggest: (9 * 36) * (98/105) = 302 rounds. Fighters carried hundreds of pounds of ammo, so 300 rounds certainly wouldn’t be everything on the plane.

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Posted: 02 January 2011 02:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It occurs to me the link length is probably intended to be 1/8 inch exactly, i.e the manual measurement was slightly off. This would make each round 0.929 inches, so nine yards would contain 301 rounds.

[ Edited: 02 January 2011 04:53 AM by kauffner ]
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Posted: 02 January 2011 05:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Do you have a source for the size of the .50 cal round or the length of a belt of 105 rounds? Also, are you sure the cartridge hasn’t changed over the intervening seventy years? (I don’t think it has, but I’m not certain.)

I recall spending some time on this and concluding that the 500 rounds per 27 feet was a reasonable approximation, but I could not find a source that gave me the actual dimensions of the cartridge or the separation between rounds on the belt. I’ll have to dig through my notes to find where I got that calculation from. (If I still have it—I didn’t use that particular fact in Word Myths; if I had I would most definitely still have the reference. I don’t keep every note for everything that goes on the web site.)

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Posted: 02 January 2011 08:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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”.50 BMG” is a particular size of cartridge, so that’s not something that would change. You can find the rim diameter here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.50_BMG or here: http://www.gunczar.com/50bmg.html.  I’m guessing you got the 500-round misinformation from here: http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0202C&L=ads-l&P=2665 Sorry, nothing official for separation. Here an ad for a 105-round belt that’s “over eight feet”: http://www.gunsofliberty.com/gol_us_bmg_belts.htm (By the estimate I gave above, it’s 8.1 feet.)

[ Edited: 02 January 2011 07:52 PM by kauffner ]
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Posted: 02 January 2011 10:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The ADS-L posting you cite was written by me, so it’s not my source.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry, it’s pretty obvious that that cartridge is indeed too large for 500 rounds to fit within 27 feet, even if the article is not quite accurate (always a possibility with Wikipedia), and even given possible changes in cartridge size over the years.

I’m pretty sure, though, that using the infantry versions isn’t a reasonable comparison. The aircraft version of the .50 cal BMG was different, and I’m pretty sure the the WWII aerial versions used metal links, not cloth belts, although I could be wrong on that.

I’ll have to correct the entry on the Big List.

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Posted: 02 January 2011 07:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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In 1945, they phased out the cloth belts, but kept using the same guns. So the cloth and metal-linked belts have to be compatible. They used cloth belts on the planes as well, although all the pictures I have seen show metal-linked belts. The measurement given in my first post is of a modern (metal-linked) belt.

[ Edited: 02 January 2011 10:21 PM by kauffner ]
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Posted: 03 January 2011 01:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Highly technical,and laudably so, even though not all that relevant. (Almost) everybody knows that “the whole nine yards” is the full length of a Scottish kilt made for a very large person’s waist:

For a very large waist, it may be necessary to use 9 yards of cloth.

(from Wikipedia, s.v. kilt.)

English Lassie (to Scots boyfriend): Do you Scotsmen wear anything under your kilts, Jock?
S.B.: Weel, if yer really want to know, pu’ yer hand under an’ feel.
E.L.: (complying, then snatching hand away) Oh-h-h-! It’s gruesome!
S.B. (smiling gleefully): Aye. Try again the noo - it’s grew some more!…

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Posted: 03 January 2011 01:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Weeellll, if you switch to the dimensions of a .30-06 cartridge (used in WWII 30 cal machine guns) the length comes closer to 9 yards for 500 rounds.

Having said that, I doubt the gun origin.

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Posted: 03 January 2011 01:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Except the legend is that it is aircraft machine guns, which were (mostly) .50 cal.

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Posted: 03 January 2011 06:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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This gives 100 rounds of .30-06 as 52 inches: http://www.cheaperthandirt.com/BELT3006-5.html, so 500 rounds is 500 * (52/100) /36 = 7.2 yards.

This ad gives a belt of twenty five .50 BMG rounds as 24 inches: http://www.cheaperthandirt.com/BELT500-5.html

The Spitfire is often mentioned in this context. It had 350-round belts of .303 British. Here’s the math: ((0.540+0.047)*350)/12 = 17.12 feet = 5.7 yards.

[ Edited: 03 January 2011 07:41 PM by kauffner ]
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Posted: 04 January 2011 06:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Well, all I did was take the width of the rim of a .30-06 (.473 in.) and add 1/8 in. space between rounds which gives .598 in. per round.  Multiplied by 500, giving 299 inches total length.  Divided by 36, giving 8.305556 yards.  Evidently the actual space between the rounds is more like 1/16 in.

I think the gun theory is pretty well debunked.

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Posted: 04 January 2011 09:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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The ammo-belt hypothesis does not depend on some ammo-belt really measuring 9 yards. Who would measure its length so precisely anyway? It would be sufficient for ammo-belts to have been thought to be 9 yards long or to have been casually spoken of as 9 yards long. However there’s not much evidence of this either.

Here are some naive thoughts from a few years ago regarding “yards of ammo”:

http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0312D&L=ADS-L&P=R4359

I think the attractiveness of such a hypothesis has decreased with the appearance of earlier uses of the phrase in conventional civilian contexts:

http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/1783/

I suppose the origin was probably simply “9 yards” = “9-yard list” = “long list”.

[ Edited: 04 January 2011 10:13 PM by D Wilson ]
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Posted: 05 January 2011 12:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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"Yards of it” could be shortened from the expression “yards and yards of it,” which certainly pre-dates “the whole nine yards.”: For example: “All the bright paper, that glittering ribbon, yards and yards of it, the gift tags and stickers.” Pittsburgh Press - Google News Archive - Dec 24, 1948. I don’t think there is any implication here that someone was measuring Christmas ribbons in yards.

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Posted: 05 January 2011 05:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I don’t think there is any implication here that someone was measuring Christmas ribbons in yards.

No, but if you do measure out Christmas ribbons, then (unless you’re in a metric country, of course) yards is what you inevitably do measure them in.  It’s as natural to say “glittering ribbon, yards and yards of it” as “I was drinking lovely fresh milk - pints and pints of it” or “he grows sunflowers - acres and acres of them”.

I simply don’t think the inference drawn in the linguistlist entry (that within the USAF, “belted .50-cal. WW II ammo was sometimes (maybe seldom, but sometimes) referred to in yards” ) is at all valid. “Heavy caliber ammunition—yards of it—are strung into the lethal tail of this B-29 Superfortress” isn’t something it’s possible to imagine one airman would say to another; it’s something crafted, presumably by the USAF press department, to explain the picture at the level of comprehension of the man-in-the-street, using a minimum of technical terms and a familiar homely phrase, “yards of it” to draw the reader’s attention to the length of the ammo belt.

[ Edited: 05 January 2011 07:01 AM by Syntinen Laulu ]
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Posted: 05 January 2011 07:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I can certainly imagine a WWII airman casually saying, “we went through yards of ammo on that mission.” In fact, given that length of almost anything is routinely expressed in yards, I would be very much surprised if no one ever said anything like that. But, I must add, that doesn’t amount to evidence for an aviation origin for the whole nine yards because just about anything and everything can be expressed in yards.

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Posted: 05 January 2011 11:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I agree with SL - some appear to have allowed their interest in the military to sway their judgement about what is, after all, theory.  (Watch out for howls of outrage). Many things are measured in yards.  Why nine yards?  Littell’s “The Living Age” Vo.15 p.250, dated 1847, mentions subtle differences in the length of what is supposed to be a standard nine yards measure of white tape.  “It is usual to make white tape in lengths of nine yards.” There’s no link to “the whole nine yards” but it’s as worthy of investigation as any other guesswork, albeit a hundred plus years too early.

The fact is, we just don’t know - but it’s fun to guess.  And I’m much more interested in dressmaking than in the military.

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