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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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What's the meaning of the phrase 'The whole nine yards'?

The expression 'the whole nine yards' means 'all of it - the full measure'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The whole nine yards'?

The whole nine yardsThe origin of this expression is considered the holy grail of etymology. Thousands of hours of research has gone into unearthing the evidence that will prove which of the many possible derivations is true.

Many people have a fervent belief that they know the origin and what the 'nine yards' are. These convictions are unfailingly based on no more evidence than 'someone told me'.

In fact, and in the text below I will make a case for this, there's little point in looking for what the 'yards' refer to, or the significance of there being nine of them, as the expression is fanciful and 'the whole nine yards' is just a way of saying 'the whole thing'. The 'yards' doesn't refer to anything in particular - the whole nine yards is no more open to explanation than the cat's pyjamas or the real McCoy.

Nevertheless, many people have invented a meaning. Here's a list of the many and various suggested origins of 'the whole nine yards' sent in by readers of this website. Be warned; none of these is supported by any evidence whatsoever and many of them are plain balmy.

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 any evidence to support their belief of choice.
  • The earliest known citation of a form of the phrase in print is from 1907, which clearly disproves the commonly circulated World War I and World War II origins.
  • The phrase originated in the central states of the USA in the early 20th century.
  • All of the numerous supposed explanations as to the origin of the phrase are incorrect.

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 common use.

Although we have 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 waters here begin to get a little cloudy. Although we now use 'the whole nine yards' the expression derived in various forms:

  • The whole nine yards
  • The whole six yards
  • The full nine yards

Early example of 'the full nine yards':

The earliest known example that I know of of a variant of the phrase is from an Indiana newspaper The Mitchell Commercial, Indiana 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 cannot promise the full nine yards.

Early example of 'the whole nine yards':

The phrase, in the form that we now use, appeared in the same newspaper the year before - The Mitchell Commercial, 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.

Early examples of 'the whole six yards':

Also, there are examples of 'the whole six yards' from the same time period. In the Kentucky newspaper The Mount Vernon Signal in June 1912:

As we have 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.

Another newspaper from a nearby state, The Batesville Guard, Arkansas, June 1917 uses the phrase in just the same way:

If he wants to know anything further he may write to me personally and I'll give him the whole six yards.

The meaning of 'the whole/full six/nine yards' in the above citations is clear; that is, as we use it now - 'the whole thing/the full story'.

There isn't any clue from the context of these early uses as to what the 'yards' referred to, or why there were nine of them. In fact, they all refer to different things.

It may not have escaped your attention that Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas are geographically close to each other. It seems a fair assumption that the phrase was coined in that region and circulated as slang before it made its way into print.

The case against machine gun belts/concrete trucks and kilts etc.

Many things that can be measured in linear, square or cubic yards - not to mention yard-arms, steelyards etc. This is the source of the variety of the numerous plausible-sounding 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 refer to yards of any particular material or any context that would indicate an origin. They certainly don't point to any of the supposed origins.

Also, the sundry explanations given are based on there being nine yards, but several early printed examples of the expression refer to six yards. If nine were significant the 'six' variants would never have been used.

Despite the inventive theories, the explanation is that the 'whole/full six/nine yards' in the phrase isn't a reference to any specific object but is merely a jokey synonym for 'whole thing'. Those inventions are what's known in the business as back-formations, that is, apparently plausible explanations which are made up when a definitive explanation isn't available. Examples of these are POSH and GOLF which are, wrongly, imagined to be acronyms formed from 'Port out, starboard home' and 'Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden'.

The whole nine yards is unusual in that, having been well enough known in Indiana in 1907/8 to have appeared several times in newspapers without the authors feeling the need to explain it, it disappeared from view for about 40 years. I can find no examples of the expression in print from 1915 to 1950. In 1950, however, we find this in the Maryland Reports: Cases Adjudged in the Court of Appeals of Maryland:

...we're here for sentencing. I'm going to need to hear the statement of facts and the whole nine yards from beginning to end, although he has been found guilty...

It looks very much as though the expression clung on to life as a slang expression local to a few closely-located states in the USA until the early 1950s. From that point on it begins to appear more widely in print. It became commonly used throughout the English-speaking world by 2000, when the US film of the same name was released.

Here's a representation of the growth in use of 'the whole nine yards' in print worldwide.

The growth in the use of the phrase 'the whole nine yards'.

 

So, that's it; no kilts, no machine guns, no sailing ships - just a jokey expression, made up by someone within a day's drive of Indiana.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.