(Note: An updated post about “the whole nine yards” appeared on Dec. 14, 2016.)
Q: You said on the radio that nobody knows the origin of the expression “the whole nine yards.” I believe it comes from sailing days. When a captain wanted to push his clipper to the limit, he put on “the whole nine yards”—that is, the three yards, or spars, holding the biggest sail on each of the three masts. How does that sound?
A: Any mention of the expression “the whole nine yards” on the air always inspires several listeners to e-mail me with the “definitive” origin of the phrase—each of course different. Your explanation sounds very good, but so do many of the others that are competing for first place.
Another listener offered this explanation: “During World War II the machine gun clips had exactly nine yards of ammunition, and soldiers would say, ‘Give ’em the whole nine yards!'”
In fact, no one really knows how the phrase originated, and many linguists and others have spent way too much time trying to track it down. One of the better explanations of this whole phenomenon is on Michael Quinion’s Website, “World Wide Words.” Here’s a link to his “whole nine yards” item.