Whole Nine Yards

The Doom Pussy

The whole nine yards is a colloquial American phrase meaning ‘everything, the whole lot’ or, adjectivally, ‘all the way.’ Its origin is unknown and has been described by Yale University librarian Fred R. Shapiro as ‘the most prominent etymological riddle of our time.’

The Oxford English Dictionary finds the earliest published non-idiomatic use in an 1855 Indiana newspaper article. The earliest known idiomatic use of the phrase is from 1907 in southern Indiana. The phrase is related to the expression the ‘whole six yards,’ used around the same time in Kentucky and South Carolina. Both phrases are variations on the ‘whole ball of wax,’ first recorded in the 1880s. They are part of a family of expressions in which an odd-sounding item, such as ‘enchilada,’ ‘shooting match,’ ‘shebang,’ or ‘hog,’ is substituted for ‘ball of wax.’ The choice of the number nine may be related to the expression ‘To the nines’ (to perfection).

The phrase was introduced to a national audience by Elaine Shepard in the 1969 Vietnam War novel ‘The Doom Pussy.’ Use of the phrase became widespread in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of the interest in the phrase’s etymology can be attributed to ‘New York Times’ language columnist William Safire, who wrote extensively on this question.

The 1855 non-idiomatic usage was found in an article called ‘The Judge’s Big Shirt’: ‘What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!’ The first known idiomatic usage in 1907 appeared in ‘The Mitchell Commercial,’ a newspaper in the small town of Mitchell, Indiana: ‘This afternoon at 2:30 will be called one of the baseball games that will be worth going a long way to see. The regular nine is going to play the businessmen as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards.’

In other uses from this time period, the phrase was given as the whole six yards. In 1912, a local newspaper in Kentucky asked readers to, ‘Just wait boys until the fix gets to a fever heat and they will tell the whole six yards.’ The same newspaper repeated the phrase soon afterward in another issue, stating ‘As we have been gone for a few days and failed to get all the news for this issue we will give you the whole six yards in our next.’

The phrase is not known to have been used in writing thereafter until a 1956 issue of ‘Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground,’ where it appears in an article on fishing. After describing the contests and prizes, the author writes, ‘So that’s the whole nine-yards.’ The phrase at this point was still rare. There is strong 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, but 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.

In a short story published in 1962, the phrase is attributed to ‘a brush salesman.’ A letter published in an auto magazine later that year describes a certain new car as containing all nine yards of goodies.’ In 1964, several newspapers published a syndicated story which explained that Give ’em the whole nine yards was NASA talk for an item-by-item report. This early usage can be read as suggesting length, but can also be read as suggesting detailed completeness.

Two 1965 newspaper articles quote U.S. military personnel serving in Vietnam using the phrase. The phrase was explained as something ‘teenagers say’ in a military-oriented magazine in 1965. It is also recorded in two contemporary novels concerning the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam, Carl Krueger’s ‘Wings of a Tiger’ in 1966 and Elaine Shepard’s ‘The Doom Pussy’ the following year.

William Safire, a language columnist at the ‘New York Times,’ asked listeners for information regarding the origin of the phrase on Larry King’s radio show in 1982. Safire ended up writing nine columns on this subject and is largely responsible for the interest in it. In 1986, the phrase was added to the Oxford English Dictionary with the earliest citation given as 1970. The ‘Historical Dictionary of American Slang’ cited Shepard’s novel in 1997, thus pushing the earliest known usage back to 1967.

Several key discoveries in further antedating the phrase were made by Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an amateur member of the American Dialect Society, an association of professional and amateur linguists whose mailing list often serves as a forum for word and phrase discoveries. In 2012, Taylor-Blake discovered the 1956 and 1957 uses in ‘Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground,’ and later that year she and Fred R. Shapiro found the ‘whole six yards’ examples from the 1912–1921 period, which received substantial publicity. In 2013, Taylor-Blake posted her discovery of the ;Mitchell Commercial’ uses from the 1907–1914 period.

There is still no consensus on the origin, though many early published quotations are now available for study. Perhaps the most commonly offered explanation is that World War II (1939–1945) aircraft machine gun belts were nine yards long. There are many versions of this explanation with variations regarding type of plane, nationality of gunner and geographic area. An alternative weapon is the ammunition belt for the British Vickers machine gun, invented and adopted by the British Army before World War I (1914–1918). The standard belt for this gun held 250 rounds of ammunition and was approximately twenty feet (under seven yards) in length. However, the Vickers gun as fitted to aircraft during the First World War usually had ammunition containers capable of accommodating linked belts of 350-400 rounds, the average length of such a belt being about nine yards, and it was thought that this may be the origin of the phrase. This theory is no longer considered viable, since the phrase predates World War I.

Another common explanation is that ‘nine yards’ is a cubic measure and refers to the volume of a concrete mixer. This theory, too, is inconsistent with the phrase’s history. Many of the popular candidates relate to the length of pieces of fabric, or various garments, including Indian saris, Scottish kilts, burial shrouds, or bolts of cloth. No single source verifies that any one of those suggestions was the actual origin. However, an article published in ‘Comments on Etymology’ demonstrates that fabric was routinely sold in standard lengths of nine yards (and other multiples of three yards) during the 1800s and early 1900s. This may explain why so many different types of cloth or garments have been said to have been nine yards long.

Other proposed sources include the volume of graves; the length of bridal veils or burial shrouds; a very long list; ritual disembowelment; shipyards; and American football. Little documentary evidence has surfaced to support any of these explanations. One proposed origin involves the world of full-rigged sailing ships, in which yard is used not as a measure of length or size, but as the name of each horizontal spar on which a sail is hung. All square-rigged sails unfurled, with three yards on each of three masts, could then be described as the whole nine yards, but again no actual documentation has been uncovered to support this explanation, and in any case not all ships had exactly three yards on each mast, even disregarding the fact that by no means all sailing vessels were three-masters.


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