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January 2, 2013

New light on "The whole nine yards" — "The most prominent etymological riddle of our time"


Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School whose research on the origin of the phrase appears in the latest issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, labeled it thus.

Jennifer Schuessler's superb December 26 New York Times story about the the history of this oft-used but —it would appear from recent discoveries — always erroneously misattributed four words takes it back way earlier than 1962, the year cited for its first use by researchers in 2009.

Excerpts from the Times article follow.

When people talk about "the whole nine yards," just what are they talking about?

For decades the answer to that question has been the Bigfoot of word origins, chased around wild speculative corners by amateur word freaks, with exasperated lexicographers and debunkers of folk etymologies in hot pursuit.

Does the phrase derive from the length of ammunition belts in World War II aircraft? The contents of a standard concrete mixer? The amount of beer a British naval recruit was obligated to drink? Yardage in football? The length of fabric in a Scottish kilt (or sari, or kimono, or burial shroud)?

Type the phrase into Google and you’re likely to get any of these answers, usually backed by nothing more than vaguely remembered conversations with someone's Great-Uncle Ed. But now two researchers using high-powered database search tools have delivered a confident "none of the above," supported by a surprise twist:

Before we were going the whole nine yards, it turns out, we were only going six.

Like the Holy Grail "the whole nine yards" has inspired both armchair mythologizing and years of hard and often fruitless searching through random books and miles of newspaper microfilm. Not that the expression is necessarily all that old. The first scholarly dating, in a 1986 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, traced it to 1970. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang then pushed it back to 1967, with a citation from "The Doom Pussy," Elaine Shepard’s novel about Air Force pilots in the Vietnam War.

The first new break on "the whole nine yards" came in 2007, when Sam Clements, a coin dealer and avid word sleuth from Akron, Ohio, discovered it in a 1964 article in The Tucson Daily Citizen about space program slang. By 2009 two other researchers had pushed it back to 1962, when it appeared in a short story about a brush salesman and an article in a car magazine.

Then, in August, Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher in North Carolina who had been searching for variants of the phrase via Google News Archive and Google Books for five years, posted a message on the e-mail list of the American Dialect Society noting a 1956 occurrence in an outdoors magazine called Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, followed in September by a more startling twist: a 1921 headline from The Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina reading "The Whole Six Yards of It." [top]

But then Mr. Shapiro, searching in Chronicling America, a Library of Congress database of pre-1923 newspapers, found two 1912 articles in The Mount Vernon Signal in Kentucky promising to "give" or "tell" the "whole six yards" of a story. Ms. Taylor-Blake also found another instance from 1916, in the same paper.

As for the meaning of the phrase, he added, the slippage from six yards to nine — part of the same "numerical phrase inflation," as he puts it, that turned "Cloud 7" to "Cloud 9" — suggests it doesn’t refer to anything in particular any more than, say, "the whole shebang" does.

Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, agrees. "The existence of a six-yard variant shows pretty clearly that this is not about yards of anything," he said. "It’s just a random number."

Mr. Shapiro concedes that he and Ms. Taylor-Blake have found only "negative evidence," and a firm origin story may yet emerge. But neither he nor Mr. Sheidlower is confident that scholarly research will dispel the urban legends that cling to expressions like "the whole nine yards."

"People are drawn to colorful etymologies," Mr. Shapiro said. "But they are almost always wrong."

January 2, 2013 at 04:01 AM | Permalink


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The machine gun thing has been disproven already. I looked at a lot of links when this post popped up, so I don't remember where, but that one was ruled out.

Posted by: Jeff | Jan 4, 2013 1:09:29 PM

I like Mike Asburns submission. I have heard it before and the review doesn't really dispute it, so be it.

Posted by: friskypainter | Jan 3, 2013 11:28:45 PM

The "whole nine yards" applies to the length of the machine gun belt in a fighter plane from WWll.
To give him"the whole nine yards" means to empty all the ammo you have in your plane on the
target. Both P51 Mustangs and Thunderbolts used nine yards of ammo per gun.

Posted by: Michael Ashburn | Jan 3, 2013 12:58:47 PM

Thanks so much, Megan: gonna watch it tonight!

Posted by: bookofjoe | Jan 3, 2013 10:33:16 AM

Don't judge me but The Whole Nine Yards is one of my favorite movies. Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis? Comedy gold. :P

Posted by: Megan | Jan 3, 2013 5:00:40 AM

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