[Note: An updated post about “the whole nine yards” appeared on Dec. 14, 2016.]
Q: You made a comment on the Leonard Lopate Show that the phrase “the whole nine yards” came from the space program. I am aware of two other possible origins, one involving machine guns and the other cement mixers. I would be interested in hearing more about your space-program reference.
A: Both of the supposed origins you mention for “the whole nine yards” have been disproved, along with many, many others (involving nuns’ habits, Scottish kilts, ships’ sails, shrouds, garbage trucks, a maharaja’s sash, a hangman’s noose, and more).
I discussed this once before on the blog. But that item was written in the fall of 2006, and now it’s time for an update.
Language researchers have long scoured archives in an effort to find a clue to the origin of this expression, and one of them may have finally found it. Last year, a philologist named Sam Clements discovered what is so far the earliest printed reference to “the whole nine yards.”
In a posting to the Linguist List, the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, Clements reported finding the expression in an April 18, 1964, article about lingo in the space program. The article, in the San Antonio Express and News, said: “Give ’em the whole nine yards” means an item-by-item report on any project.
Of course, questions remain. Why “nine yards” instead of, say, “ten pounds” or whatever? All we know (as of this writing, anyway!) is that the expression appears to be an Americanism from the 1960s and a product of the space program.
I’ll keep readers of the blog posted on any late-breaking developments!
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