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 researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake has 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” doesn’t seem to hold any significance, nor does “yards” measure anything in particular.
The phrase arose in the Ohio River valley in Kentucky and Southern Indiana around the turn of the twentieth century. The first known citation is from a 2 May 1907 newspaper article from Lawrence County, Indiana about a local baseball game:
This afternoon at 2:30 will be called one of the baseball games that will be worth going a long way to see. The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can, but we can not promise the full nine yards.
From this citation it’s tempting to associate “nine yards” with nine innings of baseball, and undoubtedly the journalist who penned this was playing off this idea, but a year later, on 4 June 1908, the same newspaper, The Mitchell Commercial, published this, having nothing to do with baseball:
Roscoe Edwards and wife returned Wednesday evening of last week from Saltillo where they had been visiting Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Cook. While there Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads. He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.
So clearly even at this early stage the phrase carried the general meaning of the entirety, the full extent of something, and the number “nine” and the word “yards” didn’t refer to anything in particular.
(The Mitchell Commercial is the source for many of the earliest known uses. This is probably the result of two factors. First, while none of the articles in which the phrase appears has a byline, given the nature of small-town newspapers it seems likely that a single journalist wrote all of them, and that the phrase was a favorite of one writer on the staff. Second, this paper happens to be archived at Newspaperarchive.com, making it accessible to modern-day researchers. We don’t know how many other newspapers that haven’t been preserved so completely also used the phrase.)
The lack of significance of the number nine is buttressed by this usage from the 17 May 1912 in the newspaper Mount Vernon Signal (Kentucky):
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.
Nine 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.
Such variation in numbers is not unknown in slang etymology. Another example is cloud nine, which in early usage appears as cloud seven, cloud eight, and cloud thirty-nine.
By 1962 the phrase had broken out of its rural place of origin 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.
Of all such explanations for the phrase, the only one that holds up at all against this evidence is the idea that it originated as the punch line of a joke that was popular in the late nineteenth century and that may have been familiar to the journalists who first put the phrase into print. (It appears in a Madison, Indiana newspaper as late as 1885.) The joke has a tailor telling a seamstress to purchase enough material for three shirts and then complaining that “she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt.” (Note that the joke is a literal usage, not in the figurative “full extent” sense. So it’s not a use of the phrase itself, but merely a collocation of the words.) But even here, the variation in the number in early uses militates against the joke being the inspiration for the modern phrase.
So what we can say with confidence about the phrase is that it uses an arbitrary number and unit of measure and simply means “a lot, the entirety.” It got its start in the early twentieth century in the backwoods of southern Indiana and Kentucky and slowly spread out from there.
Baker, John, “The Whole Nine Yards (1907 - 1916),” ADS-L, 6 September 2013. (Baker’s article summarizes a lengthy thread that occurred on ADS-L about this time, spurred by Taylor-Blake’s discoveries.)
Shapiro, Fred. “You Can Quote Them: The Inflation of ‘Cloud Seven’ and ‘The Whole Six Yards.’” Yale Alumni Magazine. Jan/Feb 2013. Web. Accessed 17 December 2013. http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/3587.
Shapiro, Fred. “You Can Quote Them.” Yale Alumni Magazine. May/Jun 2009. Web. Accessed 17 December 2013. http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/2474.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton