Quotes Uncovered: Finally, the Whole Nine Yards

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Each week, I’ve been inviting readers to submit quotations for which they want me to try to trace the origin, using The Yale Book of Quotations and my own research.

Today I will give my long-awaited response to the many questions about the leading phraseological enigma of our time, namely the origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards.” I am sorry to disappoint by having no definitive answer, but the reality is that many of the major etymological riddles have no known answer.

“The whole nine yards” is a commonly used expression denoting “everything possible.” Popular theories as to what “nine yards” originally referred to are legion. Ben Zimmer, in an excellent article on the Visual Thesaurus website, enumerates the following conjectures:

Capacity of a ready-made concrete truck, coal truck, or garbage truck (cubic yards);

amount of cloth needed for a Scottish kilt, burial shroud, or three-piece suit;

length of some piece of World War II military equipment (bomb rack, ammunition belt, etc.);

yardage in American football;

other types of “yards”: properties on a city block, naval shipyards, yardarms on a sailing ship, etc.

The first three of these in particular have many passionate adherents, although all are lacking in documentation and have holes in their explanations; ammunition, for example, is measured by rounds rather than length.

Scientific study of TWNY began with the Oxford English Dictionary, which traced its usage back to 1970. J. E. Lighter‘s Historical Dictionary of American Slang pushed the earliest dating back to 1967, citing The Doom Pussy, a book by Elaine Shepard about Vietnam War Air Force pilots. At that point all the earliest known citations were Air Force-related, pointing strongly to a military provenance. Then the database jockeys got into the act. A cadre of “antedaters” revealed a succession of older citations, reporting their discoveries on the Internet discussion list of the American Dialect Society.

First, Sam Clements used Newspaperarchive to unearth a story about NASA slang in the San Antonio Express and News, April 18, 1964, including this tidbit: “‘Give ’em the whole nine yards’ means an item-by-item report on any project.” Given the close nexus between the Air Force and NASA, the sentence seemed to strengthen the Air Force theory.

Online lexicography marched on, however. Bonnie Taylor-Blake posted to the ADS list a Google Books-derived 1962 usage of nine yards that clearly seems to be the same idiom as whole nine yards:

“Your staff of testers cannot fairly and equitably appraise the Chevrolet Impala sedan, with all nine yards of goodies, against the Plymouth Savoy which has straight shift and none of the mechanical conveniences which are quite common now.” — Car Life, December 1962.

Finally, Stephen Goranson, also searching Google Books, came up with a slightly earlier passage in a short story by Robert E. Wegner:

“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.” — “Man on the Thresh-Hold,” Michigan’s Voices: A Literary Quarterly Magazine, Fall 1962.

All this state-of-the-art research has not so far gotten us to the etymological El Dorado of a definitive explanation. The two earliest examples are somewhat contradictory in their import: the Car Life one assumes that the reader readily understands the nine yards metaphor, while the Michigan’s Voices one introduces it as a cryptic catchphrase of a brush salesman. They do both seem to treat nine yards as the length of an extensive list (as does the third-oldest known occurrence).

Perhaps their main contribution is as negative evidence. Their context does not relate to the military, nor to the realms of cloth, concrete, or football. They are sufficiently removed from World War II to raise serious doubts about how a term from that war could have attained currency in the 1960’s yet left no trace of prior usage.

OK, people, go ahead now with the confident but unsubstantiated comments about World War II ammunition, Scottish kilts, and concrete trucks.

Also, do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?


William G

A stwitch in time saved the whole nine yards.

Greg

Well, that's rather underwhelming.

scott

"They are sufficiently removed from World War II to raise serious doubts about how a term from that war could have attained currency in the 1960's yet left no trace of prior usage."

Really? The earliest recorded usage has to appear somewhere, and obviously there will be no recorded usages before this.

The question is, what is "sufficiently removed" and I guess I don't see seven years as a horrendously long period of time.

You could apply the negative evidence argument far, far more powerfully to all the other explanations.

If the whole 9 yards comes from kilts, cloth or coal, why is there absolutely no usage predating WWII???

These are all far, far older, and it seems the first recorded usage is quite sufficiently removed from them to discount them as plausible explanations.

hmmm...

I introduced it.

Or will.

Once the Large Hadron Collider is up and running I intend to go back in time to about 1960 and travel the US introducing the phrase "the whole nine yards" and embedding it as a meme. Once I return I shall inform you and we will finally have the definitive origin of the phrase.

Now then, I must gather supplies for my journey...

NMY

I have been awaiting this installment of Quotes Uncovered for a while, and I'm disappointed that it doesn't seem like a very serious effort was made to get to the bottom of this puzzle. I remember reading a similar article a few years back in which the article attempted to get in contact with Elaine Shepard, as The Doom Pussy was currently the earliest known usage. It turns out that she is dead, but surely some of the authors of these other pieces from the 1960s must still be alive. Was any effort made to contact them?

The best evidence points to this phrase coming into popular usage within the last 50-60 years. Surely, then, there are some still alive who were around when it came into popular usage and could enlighten us on it. We probably only have a few years left to survey these old timers before they are dead or doddering. Mining of the Google Books archive was a great tack to take, and it has revealed some very interesting instances, but I would love to see an investigation that really gives this problem "the whole 9 yards."

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John B.

Anecdotal and possibly apocryphal, from my father, a WWII veteran. British RAF fighter planes, like many others, held ammunition in wing magazines. The maximum number of machine gun rounds that the wing magazine could hold was approximately nine-yards in length when belted together. A pilot who really had in it for another fighter or a specific target would, "...give 'em the whole nine yards."

I have no source to cite other than my Pops.

Brett Dunbar

There is some circumstantial evidence it was not in general use in 1961, as Ralph Boston set a world record for the long jump that year at 27 feet, or nine yards. However no news report has been found that made any reference to the term, suggesting that journalists were unaware of it or did not regard it as common enough to use as a pun.

CL

I recently overheard someone threaten to 'clean your clock.' I saw the victim later, but didn't notice that his watch looked any better than before...

Gabe

“Great Scott!”

Who is Scott, and why is he the subject of an exclamation?

Fred Shapiro

Scott's comments (#3) puzzle me in a number of ways. For example, what is the seven years' interval he refers to? Did World War II end in 1955?

scott

It's simply because I'm great.

I, of course, would love to know why "every dog has his day".

Especially me.

QB

This makes me wonder about the "Full Monty" - the British equivalent of "Whole Nine Yards"

Eric M. Jones

I think the Chevy Impala "nine yards" comment referred to the length of the car (somewhat jocularly).

I think a printed reference is needed to support some of the more speculative origins. I looked into this on Google-Books and find:

My favorite--
Dictionary of phrase and fable: giving the derivation, source, or origin of ...? - Page 1174
Ebenezer Cobham Brewer - Literary Criticism - 1898 - 1440 pages. The standard of an emperor was eleven yards in length ; of a king, nine yards ... five yards ; of a knight-banneret, four and a half yards; of a baronet, ...

Journal of educational psychology? - Page 75
American Psychological Association - Education - 1913
"Each reel holds 2T>0 yards. How many aprons can be machined from this amount of ... On each apron there are nine yards of machining. (Six steps.)" Various sources call out nine yards of material for some garment.

The American journal of sociology, Volume 12? - Page 168
Ernest Watson Burgess, University of Chicago - Language Arts & Disciplines - 1907
"Yet at last in 1893 it was possible to start on the construction of the irrigation canal, which was four yards deep, nine yards wide, and seven miles long. ..." Various sources put canals at nine yards wide.

The practice of courts-martial, also the legal exposition and military ...? - Page 732 William Hough - 1825
"... or the like, or a back-house, eight or nine yards distant from the dwelling-house, and connected only by a pale extending between them (228), ..." Might there have been a building code specifying how far outhouses must be from the primary dwelling??

Technical bulletin, Issues 94-104? - Page 14
University of Minnesota. Agricultural Experiment Station - Business & Economics - 1921
"To determine the yarn number of these fabrics, two samples totaling nine yards each of warp and of filling were raveled from representative places in each ..."

The Lancet, Volume 1? - Page 449
ScienceDirect (Online service), UM-MEDSEARCH Gateway - Medical - 1857
"During the early part of last year, a girl entered the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, under the care of Dr. Gairdner, to be treated for tapeworm, nine yards ..." Tapeworm was a big problem a hundred years ago.

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Hmmmmm

A dump truck holds 20 CY of material. A standard bolt of cloth is 9 yards. an unusual measure to say the least.

You do the link.

scott

No, Scott didn't read carefully and was 10 years off. His greater point still stands, though.

Matt

Sorry, Hmmmmm. A standard bolt of cloth is generally in the 30-40 yard range.

St. Kitt

From Wikipedia:

The earliest identified use of the exact phrase dates from 1942, in the Investigation of the National Defense Program: Hearings Before a Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program,[1] by Admiral Emory Scott Land, who 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". This use refers to the total output statistics for the nine new shipyards that produced "Liberty Ships" with unprecedented speed, crucial to the course of World War II. It is thus far undetermined whether this literal use gave rise to the transferred, metaphorical, figurative sense.

Tommy in the Beanfields

Well, the anecdotal story about RAF fighters and ammo belts is hard to beat. What a wonderful visual. Indeed, the US Supreme Court just reversed a case yesterday, arguably because an attorney came up with a really good war story (albeit, out of Korea) to nudge the Court into action. And how can any of us call some one's Dad out on a such a colorful claim. I am concerned about the "appoximate" nine yards aspect. I actually hope that story is true, because I want it to be true, it is so vivid and primal.

But . . .

I am struck that all of the sources cited seem to share in common possible exposure to the same manufacturing context: cars. I don't know much about Detroit, but did they make airplanes, to, in addition to cars?

Or did GM, perhaps, once have “nine yards” as in 9 makes or models to draw from to put flair on an auto? Or 9 yards where parts were stored?

It seems significant to me that the literary article about a Fuller Brush Man is itself from a Michigan publication.

I will show my age here and suggest an entirely different source. Just a wild guess. Someplace like the automakers in Detroit circa the 1950's and early 1960's would have been some of the few places to have big main-frame UNIVAC computers and the like. Leaving aside massive reel-to-reel tapes and punch cards, I remember in the old days that computer printout paper came in a stack, all attached, and folded, so it would thread up from the floor, through the printer, and spool out the back.

Might automakers have used “the full nine yards” to list all the parts and equipment on site and available to produce a new car, or add flair to an existing car, particularly a special order car? Item-by-item, from each warehouse where the part would have to be sourced?

Again, the words spoken by the fictional brush salesman are put in his mouth by a fairly well-known Michigan author. Has anyone looked to see if Robert E. Wegner is still alive and kicking?

Of course, back in the day, Fuller Brush was a behemoth of a company, an industry leader (we forget how common their door-to-door salesmen were in the 50's). A brush salesman in Michigan would cross-pollinate with a lot of people, but maybe Fuller Brush even had a printout of available products that trailed on for 9 yards. Or not!
Although old style trucks (cement, coal, garbage, or otherwise, including horse-drawn) may have held less concrete, and a bolt of cloth makes a lot of logical sense, I agree with the negative pregnant argument in this case: if the genesis were something as egalitarian as clothes-making and garbage dumping and the like, there would be earlier references.

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tudza

The trouble I see with the long list of old references to lengths is that they include the number nine but do not include the actual phrase in question "The whole nine yards." Finding a reference to nine yards and then saying the phrase must come from that is not how the game is played.

Asking people if they remember the phrase being used is also not how the game is played. It's a good place to start, but many times you will find that grandpa ( or in fact anyone ) remembered something that just ain't so. You need to find a usage in writing from the time.

Robert L. www.neolibertarian.com

Over at Snopes they point out that the US Air Force used .50 caliber machine guns in their early jet fighters, through the 1950s, with about 300 rounds per gun which corresponds to a belt length of about 9 yards. Thus the Air Force connection does not have to be from World War II: it could have come from Korea or even after.

http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=10927