whole nine yards, the

Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The phrase doesn’t have one particular origin, nor does it represent one particular metaphor. Instead, it seems to have evolved from a sense of yard meaning a vague quantity of something. Later, the words full or whole were attached to it, and even later it was quantified by the numbers six and nine, with the whole nine yards eventually winning out and becoming the canonical form. Use of the full phrase was for a long time restricted to the American Midwest, in particular to the region around the Kentucky-Indiana border, before breaking out into general American parlance in the middle of the twentieth century.

[Discuss this post]

The word yard has long been used to denote an inexact linear measurement. Chaucer’s fourteenth-century The Knight’s Tale has this line:

Hir yelow heer was broyded in a tresse Bihynde hir bak a yerde long.

Chaucer is not saying that her hair was literally thirty-six inches in length, but rather that it was very long. More recently, Robert Southey’s Southey’s Common-place Book, published in 1849 has this:

Latinisms,—yard-and-half-long words.

Here the word yard is being used completely figuratively. Southey is not intimating, nor would any reader assume, that the words are literally four-and-a-half feet long. But while figurative, it’s still a linear measure.

But at about the same time, use of yard to mean a great quantity, and not necessarily a linear or spatial dimension, appears. And we still use the phrase by the yard to describe producing a great quantity of something. The 1845 song by J. W. Turner “The Razor Strop Man” has these lines:

He was spinning poetical rhyme by the yard;
Had Shakespear been living ‘twould astonish’d the bard.

Also in the nineteenth century, the phrase whole yards started appearing in the sense of a great quantity of something, especially of talk, writing, or information. An early example is this line from a sermon by C. H. Spurgeon. The sermon is undated, but was published in 1883:

We have heard of men talk of their experience, which can give us whole yards of godliness.

Also in the mid nineteenth century we start to see numbers, most commonly six and nine, attached to this figurative use of yard. The following letter appeared in the Bowling Green (Missouri) Democratic Banner on 4 December 1850. It is part of a verbal feud between two local notables, W. K. Kennedy and Edwin Draper. Kennedy writes, referring to Draper’s last statement:

SIR, — Your last “nine yards” would be unworthy of notice, as it commences with a falsehood and ends with a lie, was it not that you therein wish to create the impression on those that are unacquainted with the circumstances, that I had endeavored (had it not been for your shrewdness) to swindle the treasury out of a portion of the revenue. [...] I will not attempt to follow you through your “nine yards” in all its serpentine windings, but confine myself to one or two points more, and compare.

And there is this later example from the 7 May 1902 Atlanta Constitution:

The International Magazine of Billville has out a prospectus nine yards long.

But nine is not the only number associated with yards. There is this earlier example, a line from a poem, “A Flowery Tragedy,” published in the Atlanta Constitution on 12 November 1895 that uses six yards:

And marveled much at finding such
A tender flower in ice.
He wrote a poem six yards long:
His wife—she laid it flat
By saying: “Dear, that violet
Was cloth—from Sallie’s hat.

The poet would seem to be engaging in wordplay, using yard in the figurative sense of quantity, while also referring to cloth measurement, and with a double entendre in laid it flat.

But in all of these examples, we don’t have an actual instance of the present day phrase the whole nine yards. Bonnie Taylor-Blake, who the etymological world owes a great debt for her indefatigable work on this phrase, has unearthed the earliest known use that combines all the elements of the present-day phrase in its current sense. It’s from a Mitchell Commercial (Indiana) newspaper article of 2 May 1907 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.

But note this instance uses full, not whole. And 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 published the earliest known use of the phrase as we commonly use it today, and it has 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.

The lack of significance of the number nine is buttressed by this use 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.

And 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.

It’s common for numbers in slang expressions to vary like this in the early uses, until a convention is established and usage settles on one particular number. Another example is cloud nine, which in early uses appears as cloud seven, cloud eight, and cloud thirty-nine.

By mid century, the phrase had broken out of its Miowestern 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. So by this date, the phrase was well ensconced in general American parlance.

One thing to note about research into this phrase is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of nine yards or six yards to be found. Most of these are literal measurements of length, and it is often difficult to determine a century or so later if a particular use is figurative or a literal, linear measure. These can very easily trip up a researcher. The examples I have given above are clearly figurative uses and likely precursors to the present-day phrase. There are many others I could have included, but are ambiguous. One such ambiguous instance which is commonly cited by many sources, including the OED, is from an Indiana newspaper in 1855. But this would seem to be simply a collocation of the words denoting a literal measure of length, and not an example of the catchphrase as we know it today. The phrase appears as the punch line of a humorous story published in New Albany (Indiana) Daily Ledger on 30 January 1855. The story has a tailor telling a seamstress to purchase enough material for three shirts and then complaining:

What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!

The story is re-published in many different newspapers of the era—it was a common practice in the nineteenth century for newspapers to reprint, often plagiarizing, material from other papers. The story was thus repeated many times and was certainly well known. The fact that these are Indiana papers would seem to be significant, but the long gap, over fifty years, between this citation and the next militates against this story being related to the present-day phrase. 

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.

Sources:

Chenowith, James S. “Chronic Ulcer of the Leg.” International Clinics, Vol. 3, fourth series, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1894, 219.

Goranson, Stephen. “Re: The whole nine yards (1937–1916).” ADS-L, 8 September 2013.

Kennedy, W. K. “Third Epistle to Edwin.” Democratic Banner, Bowling Green, MO. 4 Dec 1850, 1.

O’Toole, Garson.  “Re: Major Discovery Relating to ‘Whole Nine Yards.’” ADS-L, 27 April 2015. (There are multiple, relevant posts on that date by O’Toole with this title).

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. yard, n.2.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, Sep 2003, s. v. nine, adj. and n.

Shapiro, Fred. “Major Discovery Relating to ‘Whole Nine Yards.’” ADS-L, 27 April 2015.

Shapiro, Fred. “You Can Quote Them: The Inflation of ‘Cloud Seven’ and ‘The Whole Six Yards.’” Yale Alumni Magazine. Jan/Feb 2013. Accessed 17 December 2013.
http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/3587.

Shapiro, Fred. “You Can Quote Them.” Yale Alumni Magazine. May/Jun 2009. Accessed 17 December 2013.
http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/articles/2474.

Spurgeon, C. H. “Sermon 21: A Visit to Calvary.” Sermons, second series. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1883, 341.

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2018, by David Wilton