In article <3ccd3d2e.73135...
@earthlink.net (Sam Hobbs) wrote:
> Probably the next most plausible (in my view) is (Daniel P. B. Smith
> did much of the initial research for the FAQ article) who concludes
> that the source is of nautical origin from several hundred years ago
> regarding sailing ships with three masts and three sails on each mast.
> The sails hung from yards (yardarms), thus only the biggest ships had
> the whole nine yards.
> There are however many other possible explanations. An article
> reproduced in its entirety lists 31 "wrong" explanations (including
> our Daniel P. B. Smith's favorite). In addition, I list a 32nd
> possible explanation.
Whoops! You credit me with far too much... I did only two clicks' worth
of "research." Also _I_ did not conclude that the sailing ship
explanation was right. It was the closing sentence of the
alt.usage.english FAQ extract that concluded that. My own belief is
that nobody has any idea where the expression came from.
What I did originally was to post a) an excerpt from "Jesse's Word of
the Day," attributed to the following now-defunct link, which is now
defunct, making it difficult for me to determine "Jesse's" surname:
followed by b) an extract from the alt.usage.english FAQ (below).
I'll go over some of the more common suggestions, but first let's
consider some important background material. The phrase is first
found, to my knowledge, in 1966. (An unreliable book has claimed that
it dates from the 1950s, which is itself not that implausible.) The
early examples do not seem to be associated with a particular field;
for example, it is found in military sources, but it doesn't seem to
be a specifically military expression. The phrase is an Americanism.
A reasonable etymological theory must meet several criteria. It must
be internally true--you cannot claim that the whole nine yards comes
from the fact that a man's three-piece suit require nine square yards
of cloth if such a suit only requires five square yards. It must jibe
with the evidence we have--an origin in some colonial practice is not
likely to be the origin of a term first found in the 1960s. It must be
sociolinguistically plausible--an origin in the jargon of cement-truck
operators is unlikely because there's no reasonable way that cement-
truck-operator jargon would make it to general use. There are other
criteria, but these are rough guidelines of what we can demand from an
explanation. With that in mind, let's look at what some people have
Despite the use of yards as the standard measurement of distance in
football, nine yards is not a significant distance in the game. No one
has ever discovered a quote from, say, a movie about football or from
a famous football player about "going the whole nine yards" in
reference to a particularly important play.
It is asserted that a standard capacity of cement-mixers is nine cubic
yards, and that a full load would be "the whole nine yards." There is
no standard capacity for cement mixers--current models vary between
seven and ten cubic yards--but in the 1960s, when the phrase was first
used, they carried about four cubic yards of cement, and six cubic
yards was considered extremely large. Also, it's unlikely that a
phrase from cement-mixing jargon would make it into the mainstream.
It is asserted that various articles of clothing, such as a man's
custom-made three-piece suit, a formal bridal veil or train, or a gown
in colonial times, customarily require nine square yards of material,
or that material normally comes in bolts of nine square yards. In
fact, a man's custom-made suit requires only about four to five square
yards of cloth; even the late Princess of Wales' staggeringly long
veil was only twenty-five feet (8 1/3 yards) long, and colonial gowns
are too old to bother considering. Bolts of cloth are normally twenty
or more yards long. Finally, the garment industry is again not a
likely source of slang.
It is asserted that the "yard" is not a reference to length, but is
rather one of the long spars to which a sail is affixed on a ship;
ships had a maximum of nine of these yards, and a ship trying to go as
fast as possible with all its sails would be using "the whole nine
yards." First of all, ships often had more than nine yards; it
depended on the number of masts, but fifteen or eighteen yards were
not unusual. Second, seafaring terminology is an unlikely origin for a
term only thirty-odd years old. Third, the phrase "all nine yards"
would be more likely in this context than "the whole nine yards."
It is asserted that nine yards is a customary length of a burial
shroud, and "the whole nine yards" would refer to death, and by
extention any extreme, final limit. This suggestion has at least some
basis--nine yards is a customary length of burial shrouds in some
areas. However, the semantic link doesn't seem likely--it's more of a
stretch from "death" to "everything possible" than one would like. The
word "whole" again doesn't make much sense in this context. Also, the
actual phrase "the whole nine yards" has never been found in
conjunction with burial practices.
A more recent assertion is that twenty-seven feet was the standard
length of a machine-gun belt, and that firing off the entire round was
shooting "the whole nine yards." This is sensible in a number of ways-
-the military is often a source for expressions of this type; it makes
perfect semantic sense; the phrasing is reasonable. Most machine-gun
belts were less than twenty-seven feet, unfortunately, and of course
this phrase is not found specifically associated with this theory
until very recently.
There are other suggestions, most of which can be dismissed using
similar reasoning. Please feel free to send in early (pre-1975)
examples if you find them, but before you make an etymological
suggestion that your husband's sister's mother's brother swears is
true, reflect on the fact that it's probably wrong too.
The alt.usage.english FAQ has the following for whole nine yards:
This phrase, meaning "all of it, everything", dates from at least
the 1950s. The origin is a matter for speculation. 9 yards is not
a particularly significant distance either in football or in the
garment business (a man's three-piece suit requires about 7 square
yards of cloth, and cloth is sold in bolts of 20 to 25 yards). The
phrase may refer to the capacity of ready-mix concrete trucks,
alleged to average about 9 cubic yards. Some people (e.g., James
Kilpatrick in _Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art_) have
satisfied themselves that the concrete-trucks explanation is the
correct one; but I haven't seen the evidence. And Matthew Jetmore
has unearthed some evidence to the contrary, a passage from the
August 1964 issue of _Ready Mixed Concrete_ Magazine: "The trend
toward larger truck mixer units is probably one of the strongest and
most persistent trends in the industry. Whereas, just a few years
ago, the 4 1/2 cubic yard mixer was definitely the standard of the
industry, the average nationwide mixer size by 1962 had increased to
6.24 cubic yards, with still no end in sight to the demand for
increased payload." The phrase is covered by Cecil Adams in _More
of the Straight Dope_, pp. 252-257. A "canonical collection" of
explanations has been compiled by "Snopes" (sno...@netcom.com).
Michael Nunamaker writes that a friend of his in the U.S. Air
Force suggested a World War II origin: "According to him, the
length of the ammunition belt (feeding the machine guns) in the
Supermarine Spitfire was nine yards. Therefore, when a pilot had
shot all his ammunition he would say he had 'shot the whole nine
This hasn't been updated that recently because one of the more
"definitive" definitions is about old sailing ships. A yard was one of
the sails. TO have the whole nine yards means being under full fail.
Daniel P. B. Smith
Email address: dpbsm...@cocktailwaitress.com