[Note: An updated post about “the whole nine yards” appeared on Dec. 14, 2016.]
Q: Your cryptic etymology of the “whole nine yards” traces it to the space program in the ’60s, when it meant a detailed report. Such a report would have been on a folded stack of perforated printer paper – perhaps nine yards long.
A: You’re the second person to email me with this theory. I guess it’s possible that “the whole nine yards” originally referred to a continuous computer printout, but I can’t find any evidence to support it.
As of this writing, we simply don’t know for sure when or how “the whole nine yards” originated.
Many theories (involving cement mixers, machine guns, nuns’ habits, Scottish kilts, ships’ sails, shrouds, garbage trucks, a maharaja’s sash, a hangman’s noose, etc.) have been debunked.
As more information is digitized, however, we’re finding earlier and earlier printed references for the phrase. It seems as if word sleuths posting to the Linguist List, the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, are coming up with new citations every few months.
To date, the earliest known use of “the whole nine yards” in print comes from Senate testimony by Vice Admiral Emory S. Land in 1942 about production at nine shipyards:
“You have to increase from 7.72 to 12 for the average at the bottom of that fifth column, for the whole nine yards.” (The admiral is obviously using the phrase literally here, not in its usual sense as the whole enchilada.)
As of now, the earliest published reference for the expression in its usual sense is from “Man on the Thresh-Hold,” a short story by Robert E. Wegner printed in the fall 1962 issue of the literary magazine Michigan’s Voices.
A rambling sentence in the story refers to “house, home, kids, respectability, status as a college professor and the whole nine yards, as a brush salesman who came to the house was fond of saying, the whole damn nine yards.”
It’s clear that the author didn’t coin this usage. We can safely assume that it was an expression familiar to him (though perhaps not to his readers, since he felt the need to explain it somewhat).
The next known appearance is from a letter to the editor published in the December 1962 issue of Car Life magazine:
“Your staff of testers cannot fairly and equitably appraise the Chevrolet Impala sedan, with all nine yards of goodies, against the Plymouth Savoy which has straight shift and none of the mechanical conveniences which are quite common now.”
But perhaps the most tantalizing early citation so far is from an article by the World Book Encyclopedia Science Service about jargon in the space program. (A reprint appeared in the April 18, 1964, issue of the San Antonio Express and News and elsewhere.)
The article (entitled “How to Talk ‘Rocket’ “) defined “the whole nine yards” as “an item-by-item report on any project.” The author, Stephen Trumbull, added that “the new language” from the space program was spreading “across the country – like a good joke – with amazing rapidity.”
Could NASA, which was established on July 29, 1958, be the ultimate source of this usage? We don’t know, but stay tuned.
(Sam Clements, Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Stephen Goranson, and Joel S. Berson are among the word detectives who helped track down the latest footprints of “the whole nine yards.”)