Created on: January 27, 2013
People have been discussing for decades the origin and meaning of the catch phrase “the whole nine yards.” Clearly it refers to the entire, boring totality of a description or a situation. But nine yards of what? Why not eight or ten? Why yards rather than feet, inches, miles of any other unit of length or distance.
Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations as well as books on that subject, has come up with an answer that does not address any of the questions in the previous paragraph. The fact of the matter is that there is no significance to the number nine, and yards do not measure any one thing.
The earliest reference that has been found is to an article in a 1912 newspaper, the Mount Vernon (Kentucky) Signal, and the number nine is upside down. “But there is one thing sure, we dems would never have known that there was such crookedness in the Rebublican [sic] party if Ted and Taft had not got crossed at each other. Just wait boys until the fix gets to a fever heat and they will tell the whole six yards.”
Then nine years later a baseball article of the Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal had as its title “The Whole Six Yards of It.” It was forty more years before the six finally expanded to nine. Shapiro records two uses in the Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground—a magazine devoted to fish and wildlife. A list of prizes in a fishing tournament concluded with “So that’s the whole nine-yards.” A few years later (1957) in the same magazine that exact statement appeared again.
Perhaps southerners originated the phrase, but by 1962 it had spread beyond regionalism. In Michigan Voices: A Literary Quarterly a short story by one Robert E. Wegner titled “Man on the Thresh-Hold” contained the following: “Then the dog would catch on and go ki-yi-yi-ing from one to the other of shouting pyjama clad participants mad, mad, mad, the consequence of house, home, kids, respectability, status as a college professor and the whole nine yards, as a brush salesman who came by the house was fond of saying, the whole damn nine yards.” In an issue of Car Life also published in 1962, the special features of the Chevrolet Impala were listed as “all nine yards of goodies.” No explanation was given.
So one can ignore the claims that the nine yards were the length of a machine gun ammo belt, the amount of material in a Scotsman’s kilt, the amount of concrete a cement mixer can hold, or the number of spars on a sailing vessel. Shapiro suggests that the phrase started in the American south and then spread. If someone knows different, he can contact Fred Shapiro, author of “You Can Quote Them.” Yale Alumni Magazine. May/Jun 2009.
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