whole nine yards, the
Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the phrase, the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The origin of the phrase has long been a mystery, but recently researchers Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Fred Shapiro have uncovered the phrase’s origin, or at least gotten as close to the origin as anyone is likely to get. And in what may be a surprise to many (but perhaps not to those with long experience researching slang terms), the phrase doesn’t refer to anything in particular. The “nine” holds no significance, nor does “yards” measure anything in particular.
The progenitor of the modern phrase is found as early as 17 May 1912 in the newspaper Mount Vernon (Kentucky) Signal, where an article states:
But there is one thing sure, we dems would never have known that there was such crookedness in the Rebublican [sic] party if Ted and Taft had not got crossed at each other. Just wait boys until the fix gets to a fever heat and they will tell the whole six yards.
A few years later the phrase, The Whole Six Yards of It, turns up as the title of an article in the Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal of 7 May 1921, which gives a detailed summary of a local baseball game.
By the 1950s the phrase had been inflated to nine yards, but still remained in local usage. (See cloud nine for a similar inflation of numbers.) The July 1956 issue of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, a magazine produced by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, concluded a list of prizes in a fishing tournament with the statement, “So that’s the whole nine-yards.” That same magazine used the phrase again in 1957.
By 1962 the phrase had broken out of rural Southern usage and began to be used across the United States. The fall 1962 issue of Michigan Voices: A Literary Quarterly contained a short story by Robert E. Wegner, “Man on the Thresh-Hold” that used the phrase:
Then the dog would catch on and go ki-yi-yi-ing from one to the other of the shouting pyjama clad participants mad, mad, mad, the consequence of house, home, kids, respectability, status as a college professor and the whole nine yards, as a brush salesman who came by the house was fond of saying, the whole damn nine yards.
And in December of that year, the magazine Car Life used “all nine yards of goodies” to describe the Chevrolet Impala, perhaps the first use of the phrase in a national publication that didn’t see fit to explain the term.
So regardless of what someone else has told you, the whole nine yards does not refer to the length of a belt of WWII machine-gun ammunition, the amount of material needed to make a Scottish kilt, the number of spars on a sailing ship, the amount of concrete a cement mixer holds, or anything else. It’s an arbitrary number and unit of measure that simply means “a lot, the entirety.” It got its start in the early twentieth century in the backwoods of the American South, probably Kentucky, and slowly spread out from there.
(Sources: Shapiro, Fred. “You Can Quote Them: The Inflation of ‘Cloud Seven’ and ‘The Whole Six Yards.’” Yale Alumni Magazine. Jan/Feb 2013. Web. Accessed 28 December 2012. http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/3587. Shapiro, Fred. “You Can Quote Them.” Yale Alumni Magazine. May/Jun 2009. Web. Accessed 28 December 2012. http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/2474.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton