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The meaning and origin of the expression: The whole nine yards

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The whole nine yards

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Meaning

All of it - full measure.

Origin

Of all the feedback that The Phrase Finder site gets this is the phrase that is asked about the most often. At the outset it should be said that no one is sure of the origin, although many have a fervent belief that they are. These convictions are unfailingly based on no more evidence than 'someone told me'. Here's a list of the many and various suggested origins sent in by readers of this site.

Abstract

This piece is quite long, so here's a summary:

  • Many people are convinced they know the origin of this expression, which has numerous speculative derivations, but aren't able to provide documentary evidence to support their belief of choice.
  • The earliest known citation of the phrase in print is from 1956. The absense of the expression in print prior to that date argues strongly against any of the supposed mediaeval, Victorian or even World War II origins.
  • The weight of circumstantial evidence is that the phrase originated in America in the late 1950s but it isn't known who coined the term.

How was the phrase derived?

"The whole nine yards" crops up in many contexts, which isn't surprising, as there are many things that can be measured in linear, square or cubic yards - and there are also yard-arms, steelyards etc. to account for. This is the source of the variability of the many plausible, but of course mostly incorrect, explanations of the phrase's origin. Regrettably, plausibility doesn't get us very far, as the following will show. The early citations of the phrase don't in fact refer to yards of any particular material, just to a nonspecific measure - 'yards'.

The military are also the source of the majority of hearsay accounts of the phrase's source. Many of these are of the 'I was there' variety and carry more authority than the usual, and frankly unhelpful, 'I was told' stories. Having spent some time researching this phrase I have received many such reports from servicemen (usually U.S. servicemen).

When was it coined?

Although the precise derivation of a given slang phrase is often difficult to determine, the date of its coinage usually isn't. Phrases that are accepted into common use appear in newspapers, court reports, novels etc. very soon after they are coined and continue to do so for as long as the phrase is in use. Anyone who puts forward an explanation of an origin for 'the whole nine yards' which dates it to before the 1950s has to explain the lack of a printed record of it prior to 1956. If, to take the most commonly repeated version for instance, the phrase comes from the length of WWII machine gun belts, why is there no printed account of that in the thousands of books written about the war and the countless millions of newspaper editions published throughout the 1950s and 60s? The idea that it pre-dates the war and goes back to the 19th century or even the Middle Ages is even less plausible.

What I am sure of is that the phrase wasn't in wide circulation before 1961 - which tends to rule out many of the suggested sources. Why? In May 1961, the American athlete Ralph Boston broke the world long jump record with a jump of 27 feet 1/2 inch. No one had previously jumped 27 feet. This was big news at the time and widely reported. Surely the feat cried out for this headline?:

"Boston goes the whole nine yards"

And yet, not a single journalist worldwide came up with that line, which is missing from all newspaper archives. The phrase may have been coined before 1961, but it certainly wasn't then known to that most slang-aware of groups - newspaper journalists.

The likelihood that the phrase originated in the mid 20th century is supported by the lack of any evidence prior to the early 1960s and the ample printed citations from the late 1960s. "The whole nine yards" was in wide enough circulation in the USA then for it to be appearing in newspaper adverts. There are many examples of this, as here from the Playground Daily News, Fort Walton Beach, Florida, 1st May 1969:

'Four bedroom home, located in Country Club Estates. Running distance from Golf Course. Completed and ready to move in. This home has "the whole nine yards" in convenience.'

Earliest citations in print

The earliest known example of the phrase in print that I know of is from a publication that continues to be put out by the US Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, a magaazine called Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground. The July edition includes a line that refers to the prizes in a fishing competition:

"So that's the whole nine-yards."

In the January 1957 edition the author writes about hunters, saying:

"These guys go the whole nine yards - no halfway stuff for them."

The author of the articles was Ron Rhody. He is still amongst the living [October 2012] and is recorded as saying that he thought the expression was in common use in Kentucky in the late 1950s but didn't know how it had originated.

Suggested derivations

Despite being sure they are all inventions, I'm obliged to include some of the versions of the source of the phrase that are going the rounds. Take your pick, and feel free to make up your own - everyone else does:

  • It comes from the nine cubic yards capacity of US concrete trucks and dates from around 1970s. Widely circulated although arrant nonsense as even the largest concrete mixers were smaller than 9 cubic yards in 1967.
  • The explanation refers to World War II aircraft. There are several aircraft related theories:

    • The length of US bombers bomb racks.
    • The length of RAF Spitfire's machine gun bullet belts.
    • The length of ammunition belts in ground based anti-aircraft turrets, etc. No evidence to show that any of these measured nine yards has been forthcoming.

  • Tailors use nine yards of material for top quality suits. Supporters of this theory sometimes relate it to 'dressed to the nines'.
  • The derivation is naval and the yards are shipyards rather than measures of area or volume. Another naval version is that the yards are the spars of sailing ships. The name for the spar that hold the sails is a yard. Large sailing ships had three masts, often with three yards on each. The theory goes that ships in battle can continue changing direction as new sails are unfurled. Only when the last sail, on the ninth yard, is used do the enemy know which direction the ship is finally headed.
  • A mediaeval test requiring the victim to walk nine paces over hot coals.

If anyone has any hard evidence of this phrase being used before 1956, that is, an appearance of the phrase in print, I would love to see it - but please, evidence not conjecture.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.