English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

The whole six yards?

[Note: An updated post about “the whole nine yards” appeared on Dec. 14, 2016.]

Once more, we interrupt our regular programming for an update on “the whole nine yards,” an expression whose origin has eluded etymologists for decades.

In our last bulletin, just four months ago, we said that word sleuths had traced the expression back to the mid-1950s, when it appeared in two articles in a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife publication.

But the references—“So that’s the whole nine-yards” and “These guys go the whole nine yards”—provided no clue to the phrase’s origin. Even the author of the articles said he had no inside information.

Now Fred R. Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations, has announced new findings. In the January-February issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, he says several references to “the whole six yards” (yes six, not nine) have turned up in print from 1912 to 1921.

And the six-yard version of the expression meant exactly what the nine-yard version does—the whole extent of something. What this suggests, Shapiro says, is that “the whole six yards” eventually became “the whole nine yards.”

As he explains: “Anyone who studies quotations and phraseology often sees a phenomenon I hereby dub ‘phrase inflation’: in expressions that use a number meant to be impressive, that number is likely to grow over time.”

He cites the example of “cloud nine,” a phrase that originally appeared as “cloud seven” and “cloud eight.” Likewise, the expression “Let a hundred flowers bloom” now usually appears as “Let a thousand flowers bloom.”

His research was also reported in an article in the New York Times.

So what about the phrase’s original meaning? As Shapiro writes in his article, “Still, we have no explanation of why something six or nine yards long is being alluded to—of what was originally six or nine yards long.”

“Perhaps,” he adds, “the reference was never a specific length of a specific thing, but only a colorful locution vaguely signifying something very long. We can now at least trace the inflation that apparently led to the final formulation.”

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