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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 1907. The absense of the expression in print prior to that date argues strongly against any of the supposed mediaeval origins and clearly disprove the commonly circulated World War I and World War II origins.
  • The weight of circumstantial evidence is that the phrase originated in America but it isn't known who coined the term.

When was 'the whole nine yards' coined?

Although the precise derivation of a given slang phrase is often difficult to determine, the date of its assimilation into the language 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.

Although we have good documentary evidence of the expression's existence in the USA in 1907, it appears it wasn't in wide circulation before 1961. 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.

Earliest citations in print

The earliest known example of the phrase in print that I know of is from an Indiana newspaper The Mitchell Commercial, 2nd May 1907:

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 business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards.

It appeared again in the same paper the following year, on 4th June 1908:

...Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads, He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.

The meaning of 'the whole nine yards' in the above citations is clear, that is, as we use it now, 'the whole thing/the full story'. Oddly, and even though it was well enough known in Indiana in 1907 to have appeared several times in newspapers without the authors feeling the need to explain it, the expression seems to have disappeared from view for another 50 years or so.

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 numerous plausible, but of course mostly incorrect, explanations of the phrase's origin, many of which are listed in the accompanying 'whole nine yards enchilada' . Regrettably, plausibility doesn't get us very far. The early citations of the phrase don't in fact refer to yards of any particular material, just to a nonspecific measure - 'yards'.

Despite the inventive theories the most likely explanation, although frustrating to many, is that the 'yards' in the phrase isn't a reference to any specific object but is merely a synonym for 'stuff'.

Advances in the digitisation of newspapers and other texts mean that we may yet find earlier examples in print that give a pointer to what the 'yards' were. If anyone has any hard evidence of this phrase being used before 1907, 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.