The title of my post about fabric names, "The Whole Nine Yards," was meant to be tongue in cheek. But when a commenter asked about the origin of the phrase, I decided to perform a public service--consider it my random act of kindness for the month.
Here's the executive summary: no one knows for sure where "the whole nine yards" comes from. But lots and lots of people have gone gleefully a-hunting.
Here's what we do know, sort of:
- The phrase is almost certainly an Americanism; it's rarely heard in other English-speaking countries. It doesn't appear at all in my 1981 edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, a respected British reference. (But see below for contrary opinions.)
- It was first recorded in the 1960s, although it was probably in use at least a decade earlier. (Or even earlier; again, see below.)
- It means "everything," "the works." (There are a lot of similar "whole" idioms in American English: whole hog, whole shootin' match, whole enchilada, whole shebang, whole kit and caboodle, whole ball of wax...)
- When you add "to go" in front of the phrase, it can mean "to continue to do something dangerous or difficult until it's finished."
One more verifiable fact before we veer off into lore: According to language maven Michael J. Sheehan, writing in The Vocabula Review in 2004 (access restricted to subscribers; it's worth the cost of the subscription just to read this article), "the whole nine yards" first appeared in print in a 1967 book called The Doom Pussy by Elaine Shepard. "Whether Ms. Shepard invented the phrase or was simply passing it on isn't known for certain," Sheehan writes. "If she was a conduit, the phrase probably originated in the mid-1960s. Had it been significantly earlier, it would have appeared in an earlier printed source."
I searched the usually reliable Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins but was disappointed; the entry says only that the phrase "did not arise in the garment business but possibly among construction workers, the nine yards referring to the maximum capacity a cement-mixer truck can carry--nine cubic yards of cement. There is no firm proof of this or any other derivation, however." In fact, according to several other sources, the capacity of cement mixers is anything but standard; loads range between four and a half and ten cubic yards.
Other pseudodefinitions (compiled by Sheehan and by British linguaphile Michael Quinion of World Wide Words:
- The size of a nun's habit
- The size of a wedding dress (or a wedding veil, or a royal train on a wedding dress)
- The amount of material needed to make a man's three-piece suit
- The length of a maharajah's ceremonial sash
- The length of a standard bolt of cloth
- The length of a burial shroud
- The length of cloth needed for a Scottish "great kilt"
- The nine yards of lanolin-soaked wool blankets the early Scots would wrap themselves in
- The length of Indian saris used for weddings and special occasions
- The length of turbans mandated under British colonial rule so that all castes would be equally outfitted
- The length of animal skins needed to cover a tepee
Note that all of these definitions assume that the expression is much older than the mid-1960s, several are British in origin, and at least one is spurious: even a three-piece man's suit requires far less than nine yards of fabirc.
Then there are the military pseudodefinitions (source: Sheehan):
- The bullet clips for Gatling guns (or some WW I machine gun) were nine yards long
- 50-calibre machine gun ammunition belts in WW II Supermarine Spitfires measured exactly twenty-seven feet (variations: the Corsair fighter, the B-17, the P-47)
- A three-masted warship had three yardarms on each mast for the square sails, making nine in all
- Traditionally, newly promoted sailors in the British Navy had to make the rounds of nine designated pubs near the London docks, drinking a "yard" of ale at each
- Nine yards was the amount of material needed to make a parachute
- A soldier's pack had a nine-yard capacity
And then there's the football theory. A "down" in football consists of ten yards, not nine, so the explanation takes one of these forms (thanks again to Sheehan):
- This is a sarcastic reference to sloppy measurements by early football referees before chains were mandated
- It is a sarcastic euphemism used by football coaches for failure: you used all that energy and still fell short — you went the whole nine yards when you needed ten to make a first down
I like the second definition a lot. But it's not quite the last word.
Here's Sheehan, riffing wildly on the theme with his own contribution to nine-yard folklore:
The tenth letter of the Phoenician alphabet was called yodh. (Incidentally, this letter was also absorbed into the Hebrew alphabet.) It was forbidden by punishment of death for a commoner to say the sacred name of the king aloud, so it was always written. To write the phrase King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, you had to use nine yodhs. Hence the phrase, the whole nine yodhs, a coded reference to his unspeakable name, which became corrupted over the centuries into the whole nine yards.
And for the last last word, visit Barry Popik's delightful site, "The Big Apple," and read "The Scotsman's Kilt," a classic in the shaggy-dog--or shaggy-yard--genre.