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The whole nine yards
Posted: 06 August 2012 03:53 AM   [ Ignore ]
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New antedates found by Bonnie Taylor-Blake from 1956, 1957 and 1962, all from the Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground magazine. Details on LinguistList. The interview with Ron Rhody who authored the 1957 article in which the phrase is used is fascinating.

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Posted: 06 August 2012 07:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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He further noted that “I’ve always understood ‘the whole nine yards’ to be a football reference. It’s fourth and nine and rather than do the smart thing and
punting, you go for it all. So the phrase to me has always meant going for it all, or in a more generic sense, to refer to all of what remains.”

Makes sense to me. The fight over this could be interesting…

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Posted: 06 August 2012 09:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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We did have a discussion about this back in The Olden Days:  http://wordoriginsorg.yuku.com/topic/436/Nine-Yards

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Posted: 06 August 2012 09:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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He further noted that “I’ve always understood ‘the whole nine yards’ to be a football reference. It’s fourth and nine and rather than do the smart thing and
punting, you go for it all. So the phrase to me has always meant going for it all, or in a more generic sense, to refer to all of what remains.”

If you’re on the fourth down and you’ve already gone nine yards, don’t you need just ONE more yard? I’m no football expert. Does this explanation make sense on the face of it? I’m not suggesting that Rhody is fabricating. He probably does remember it this way.

edit: Or does “fourth and nine” mean you’ve gone one yard and have nine more yards to go?

[ Edited: 06 August 2012 09:33 PM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 06 August 2012 09:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Sorry about my complete ignorance of football yardage/scoring methods. Here’s Ben Zimmer’s explanation:

Rhody told Taylor-Blake that he thought it was a common expression in Kentucky at the time but didn’t have any particular insights about its origins. He surmised that it had to do with football yardage, one of the more popular origin stories. Getting a first down in football requires advancing the ball ten yards, so if it was fourth down with nine yards to go, you could go for it and try to get “the whole nine yards” for a first down instead of safely punting. (See my previous Word Routes column for a roundup of theories.)

Found here.

I guess it makes sense as an abstract metaphor. It’s just not always the case that the ball moves one yard forward--it can move backwards. Who knows? Maybe there was some kind of radio commercial in Kentucky in the 1930s which caused the expression to catch on.

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Posted: 07 August 2012 03:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I’m somewhat skeptical of the football explanation as advanced here. It is a very plausible explanation and could turn out to be the case, but Rhody’s explanation could just as well be an after-the-fact rationalization to explain a mysterious phrase, like we’ve seen so many time before with this phrase. We need to find a use in a football context for it to be convincing.

And as for it going back decades before the 1950s, I’m highly skeptical. Memory, especially of what words were spoken, fifty years after the fact is not a reliable source. Memory isn’t like a photograph; it’s constantly changing and being updated.

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Posted: 07 August 2012 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I think it’s important to note that Ron explained that “I’ve always understood ‘the whole nine yards’ to be a football reference.” When I spoke with him about this, his was more a speculative tone rather than an expression of certainty about what “the whole nine yards” referred to when he was using it in the 1950s.  I got the impression that this was something he never thought about, just an idiom he used and heard used.  He couldn’t get over the fact that folks were interested in this:  it never occurred to him that this would be at all special.

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Posted: 07 August 2012 07:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Bonnie - 07 August 2012 05:13 AM

I think it’s important to note that Ron explained that “I’ve always understood ‘the whole nine yards’ to be a football reference.” When I spoke with him about this, his was more a speculative tone rather than an expression of certainty about what “the whole nine yards” referred to when he was using it in the 1950s.  I got the impression that this was something he never thought about, just an idiom he used and heard used.  He couldn’t get over the fact that folks were interested in this:  it never occurred to him that this would be at all special.

Good catch, Bonnie! Interesting that I’ve never heard the football explanation for the expression, but it is the one that makes the most sense. And, I think it is the first one that came to my mind when I first heard it but now has been clouded and overshadowed by cement trucks, kilts and machine gun belts.

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Posted: 07 August 2012 07:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I don’t understand why anyone is paying any more attention to the football explanation just because the guy who is currently the first attested user came up with it.  It’s an obvious idea if you are familiar with American football; that doesn’t make it right, and the fact that this guy thought of it doesn’t give it any more weight.  He didn’t invent the expression, so his ideas about its origin are just as worthless as everyone else’s.

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Posted: 07 August 2012 07:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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When I first came across the phrase years ago I assumed it had some connection with American football. As an Englishman I didn’t know a great deal about the sport, but enough to know that 10 yards was the distance between downs, so that puzzled me a little. I still think that football is the most likely origin.

And congratulations on another great find, Bonnie!

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Posted: 07 August 2012 08:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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languagehat - 07 August 2012 07:33 AM

I don’t understand why anyone is paying any more attention to the football explanation just because the guy who is currently the first attested user came up with it.  ...

The “catch” I was referring to is not the accuracy of the football explanation. It was about the 1956 antedate. We’ve been hearing about mid-sixties as the era of the first use (64, 66) for so long that the phrase “mid-sixties” has been enshrined in this discussion. Now the earliest citation is 9 to 10 years earlier. It doesn’t invalidate Dave’s note that the phrase is “much more recent than you probably think.” But I agree, neither does this validate the “football explanation.” I’m just saying that it makes more sense than ammo belts or cement truck loads.

N.B.That link to the pdf of the fishing article and the library citation may expire in a few days.

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Posted: 08 August 2012 09:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Great find—this is a lot of fun.  Of course, nothing here definitively establishes the origin.  But the fact that the earliest publication is from the U.S. supports the football theory.  And the fact that the earliest date is no longer Vietnam related tends to further discredit military theories.

Football seems most likely to me—just applying Occam’s razor.

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Posted: 08 August 2012 12:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Occam’s razor isn’t quite the right term here. Occam is about choosing the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions, not which seems to be the most plausible. The football explanation doesn’t have fewer assumptions than other explanations.

I don’t think that anyone doubted that the phrase was American in origin; it pretty clearly is. So this find, which is a big one, doesn’t affect that.

Nor does the date make the hypotheses about a military origin less likely, although the context does. The US was pretty militarized in 1956, one of the peaks of the Cold War. Also, the dates are being pushed closer to WWII, which makes the various explanations rooted in that war a bit more plausible. (But WWII slang is really well documented; if it had come from that war, it is likely we’d know it already.) But the fact that this earliest citation is not in a military context does make a military origin somewhat less likely. But the previous earliest citation was also in a non-military context.

I agree the football explanation is the most plausible. But that’s a gut feeling and not based on any solid evidence. My point was that memory is not good evidence, not that the football explanation wasn’t plausible.

Kudos to Bonnie for a great find.

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Posted: 10 August 2012 06:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Well, it was essentially dumb luck to have found those sightings, but I appreciate the appreciation!

Some random thoughts, not that I know more than anyone else, in case anyone’s interested in further discussion. 

Something that strikes me as significant about four of the five earliest sightings (1956-1962) is that they’re used nonchalantly and casually, without the authors (and editors) feeling the need to explain the expression to readers.  There are no quotation marks around the “the whole nine yards,” “the entire nine yards,” and “all nine yards” in any of the four earliest examples.  (I suppose there may have been an assumption that readers could figure out meaning from context.) Wegner’s 1962 short story, in which he has the narrator clarify that “the whole nine yards” was something a brush salesman was fond of saying, uses “the whole nine yards” a little self-consciously.  The same vague attempt at clarification is found in the 1964 piece on NASA slang (of course), Charles Coombs’s Aerospace Pilot (1964), and in some class notes from West Point’s Class of 1941 (1965).

I’m not sure how significant that is, but to me it suggests that the expression had been around for a while, at least in some pocket(s) of the country, at least by the mid-1950s and that—as it spread—authors who (I’m guessing) had no long-term experience with the expression figured that readers might appreciate some elaboration.  Perhaps that’s an obvious point, but it seems meaningful to me somehow.

Additionally, something (admittedly, an n=1) that for me argues against a specific WWII connection (in addition to Dave’s excellent point about WWII slang being well documented) is that Col. Burton C. Andrus, Jr., a member of that West Point Class of 1941, used “‘the whole 9 yards’ as the teenagers say” in 1965 (note quotation marks and clarification about who was using the phrase).

http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1006C&L=ADS-L&P=R6912

According to his 2004 obituary, “Col. Andrus was a World War II Army Air Corp. Veteran serving honorably as squadron Commander of B-24s in southern Italy. After WWII he became a Wing commander of B-47s at Dyess AFB and later Wing Commander of the first operational Minute Man Missiles at Malmstrom AFB.” Unless in 1965 he was using “‘the whole 9 yards’ as the teenagers say” ironically, I think this indicates that Andrus found “the whole nine yards” to be pretty novel, though perhaps I’m reading too much into how he qualified “the whole nine yards.”

It’s hard not to go a little crazy mulling over different possibilities.  I try not to think too hard about all this, reminding myself that we’re now generally at the mercy of digitizers of books, magazines, newspapers, and the like for what early sightings we stumble upon.  It’s not like we’re getting an even sampling across professions, interests, and regions.  What I convince myself of at any moment about “the whole nine yards” is probably pretty skewed by where we’re finding these examples; no doubt it existed elsewhere and still lies dormant.  Still, as Jim points out, this is a lot of fun.

-- Bonnie

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Posted: 10 August 2012 10:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Fun it is, Bonnie, and great input.

I have no idea if this quote has any bearing on anything at all, but I found this courtesy of google books from ”The Billboard” magazine, subtitled “The World’s Foremost Amusement Weekly” dated January 15, 1949. (Ed.: page 15)

What few people outside the program ranks realize is that television eats up programs like a nine-yard shovel attacking a gravel bank.

A nine-yard shovel - from coal mining?

Large trucks of this size should have a seven to nine yard shovel to load the coal from the pit.

And from Miner’s Welfare article quoting George Mills:

I used to work in Gedling Pit in Nottingham in the early 1950s. It was very hard work.  This was when miners were on “nine yards” duty with a pick and a shovel.

In the pit you’d be in a hole 3’6” high and you’d have to hack nine yards into the coal.

And what’s a nine-yard shovel pass in American football?

[ Edited: 10 August 2012 10:53 AM by ElizaD ]
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Posted: 10 August 2012 11:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Came back for a visit and was a bit surprised to see this at the top of the discussion forum. (I’d thought this one had been proverbially beaten to death).
I don’t recall ever seeing this tidbit before:

The earliest known use of the phrase dates from 1942, in the Investigation of the National Defense Program: Hearings Before a Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program , by Admiral Emory Scott Land. Land said:
“You have to increase from 7.72 to 12 for the average at the bottom of that fifth column, for the whole nine yards.”
In context, Land is referring to shipyard production, and “the whole nine yards” means the combined output of all nine plants. Land does not seem to use the phrase in a whimsical fashion; it is a matter of fact statement. As such, it is likely that the phrase did not have its idiomatic meaning at the time. There is a small possibility that this represents the origin of the phrase.

http://www.reference.com/browse/whole+nine+yard

Any attempt to try and verify this just led me back to the same information, so I’m sceptical about its validity.

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