The Grammarphobia Blog

The whole nine yards, continued

We interrupt our regular programming for this special report.

Hundreds of you (well, dozens anyway) have written us over the years about the expression “the whole nine yards,” either to ask about its origin (nine yards of what?) or to suggest one.

Some common theories about the source of the expression are that it refers to a nine-yard length fabric (for a sari, a maharaja’s sash, a burial shroud, a three-piece suit, a nun’s habit, or a Scottish kilt).

Other notions are that the “nine yards” refers to a hangman’s noose, a continuous computer printout, or the cubic-yard capacity of a cement mixer.

But perhaps the most popular theory of all is that it’s a reference to the length of a machine-gun ammunition belt in World War II.

Unfortunately, no published evidence has been found that would back up any of these suggested etymologies.

All researchers can do is track down the earliest dates when the expression appeared in print, in hopes of finding the elusive explanation.

We last reported on the blog that the phrase in its popular sense (the whole thing, the full extent of something) first appeared in a short story published in the fall of 1962.

But we promised to keep you updated, so here’s the latest. New sightings have now  pushed the date back to the mid-1950s. 

Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a frequent contributor to the American Dialect Society mailing list, reported over the summer that she had ferreted out examples of “the whole nine yards” in articles published in 1956 and ’57.

And that’s not all. As she told ADS list subscribers, she even tracked down the author of the articles and interviewed him. Now that’s dedication!

The articles appeared in two issues of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife publication that’s only recently been added to searchable databases.

In July 1956, the journal ran a story about fishing derbies being held around the state.  After describing the prizes (including an Evinrude motor and a 14-foot boat trailer), the writer concluded:

“So that’s the whole nine-yards. The rules are simple. You’ll find them and everything you need to know on the inside page of every entry blank. Entry blanks have been placed at docks on the major lakes and in at least one sporting goods store in every county.”

Another story in the January 1957 issue, this time about hunters, said, “These guys go the whole nine yards—no halfway stuff for them.”

Taylor-Blake managed to find the author of both articles, Ron Rhody. But alas, he had no clues to offer about the source of “the whole nine yards” (and he said he had no particular reason for hyphenating “nine-yards” in the 1956 story).

Rhody told her he believed it was a common expression back then, but had no inside information as to its source.

What’s interesting here—especially in light of the popular ammunition-belt theory—is that the sightings are inching closer and closer to World War II.

We’re not the only language junkies to have that thought. The linguist Ben Zimmer, for example, made a similar comment about this ammunition-belt business last month in his Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus website:

“That, or some related military origin, could be the ultimate source, and as the documented sources for ‘the whole nine yards’ creep ever closer back to the World War II era we may eventually find an authoritative explanation for the phrase. For now, though, such an explanation remains tantalizingly out of reach.”

Check out our books about the English language