Posted by R. Berg on February 19, 2002
In Reply to: Nine yards for the sheer heck of it posted by Marian on February 19, 2002
: : I was idly skimming through the posts below on that perennial favourite "the Whole nine yards", and the length of material used in a kilt explanation caught my eye. On checking up on that (and it's wrong - the great kilt uses 12 ells aka 12 x 50 inches of material folded in half), I found the article on the site below that neatly collects a number of the apocryphal origins for this expression. It's worth checking out if you don't know of it - I especially liked the imaginative sailing ship masts theory and the debunking of the truckload of concrete myth - but don't expect an answer. Doesn't it just give you a buzz about language when a commonly used expression that's apparently less than 50 years old has untraceable origins? My personal theory is that the phrase "the Whole nine yards" used to be an entirely different phrase altogether, but was given a complete new identity by the FBI's witness protection program.
: Isn't it remotely possible, although fairly implausible, that multiple origins exist? Someone coins a phrase that, to that individual, means X. When the phrase is repeated, someone else who hears/sees it, interprets it to mean Y, and Y, interestingly enough, has broader appeal than X. Y, therefore, is taken up by the populace quicker or more readily than X. Couldn't it be then argued that the phrase had two meanings and two origins, assuming that this set of events could be documented? Must we assume that, barring such proof, only one origin, one meaning, exists?
Yes, multiple origins are conceivable.
"The devil to pay" might have originated independently in a nautical context and
in a religious context. But it isn't plausible that "the Whole nine yards" originated
independently with reference to cement trucks AND saris AND three-piece suits
AND kilts AND turbans AND ammunition belts AND sailing ships AND football AND
bolts of fabric AND . . . .
Now, given that the phrase almost certainly didn't originate in that many contexts, I don't see what reason we have to believe that it originated in more than one of them.
Many people would be delighted to get solid evidence for just one.