[UPDATE, December 2012: New research has uncovered a much earlier antedating of "the whole nine yards" -- but as "the whole six yards." Read the New York Times article and Ben Zimmer's analysis in Word Routes.]
My post about the disputed origins of the phrase "the whole nine yards" continues to draw a lot of interest, judging from search-engine stats, so I thought I'd bring you this update--or rather antedate--by way of Language Log.
A recently unearthed article in the April 25, 1964, Tucson (Ariz.) Daily Citizen contained an article headlined "Talking Hip in the Space Age," about the lingo of the space program. One paragraph caught the attention of idiom scholars:
A "mancan" or "canned man" consists of a box of mechanical devices that simulates a human being in space flight--even the slight moisture in the spacecraft generated by the process of breathing. A crash helmet is called, quite grimly, a "brain bucket." A "pericynthion" is not a type of garden plant it is the low point of lunar orbit. [Punctuation sic.] A "motorman's friend" is the astronaut's version of a bathroom--attached inside his space suit. "Give 'em the whole nine yards" means an item-by-item report on any project. "Giga" is a term that may find increasing use in future space budgets it means multiplied by one billion. [Punctuation sic.]
Language Log contributor Ben Zimmer comments:
This represents something of a Holy Grail among word sleuths: a significant antedating (i.e., an earlier citation than what is already known) for the elusive phrase the whole nine yards, meaning 'the full extent of something.'
The whole nine yards serves as a rare counterexample to the Recency Illusion: despite many theories for its origin in the distant mists of time, it has only been documented since the 1960s. (For a roundup of the theories, from Scottish kilts to concrete trucks, see Dave Wilton's Wordorigins.org, Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, Gary Martin's Phrase Finder, and Cecil Adams' Straight Dope, with further coverage in Wilton's book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends and Quinion's Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds.) Previously, the earliest known cite for the whole (or full) nine yards appeared in Elaine Shepard's 1967 book The Doom Pussy, written in 1966 about Air Force pilots serving in Vietnam. One of these pilots, Major "Smash" Crandell, is quoted as using the whole nine yards on more than one occasion in the book. There's some other scattered evidence from the late '60s supporting the idea that the phrase was first popularized in US Air Force circles before spreading to wider usage.
A couple of other observations: "mancam," cited in the first sentence, can be considered an early entry in the man-word lexicon, which I've written about previously (man cave, man purse, man- crush, etc.). Perhaps it's ripe for revival in a new context.
And that prediction about "giga" certainly came true, though not in the world of finance. Back in 1964 even a rocket scientist couldn't have foreseen that ordinary folks would be transmitting, receiving, and storing gigabits of information on home computers.