Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Stretching Out "The Whole Nine Yards"

"The whole nine yards," meaning "the full extent of something," remains one of the most puzzling idioms for word-watchers. Everyone seems to have their own explanation for where the expression comes from, and yet there is still no definitive origin story for it. This is surprising for a phrase that's not terribly old: scattered uses can be found from the 1960s, and now it's been pushed back a bit earlier, to 1956.

In a 2009 Word Routes column, I reported on what was then the latest progress in finding the earliest known usage of "the whole nine yards." Two citations from 1962 had been found by contributors to the American Dialect Society mailing list, a haven for those who enjoy the sport of "antedating," or hunting for increasingly earlier documentation of words and phrases. Stephen Goranson had found an example in a short story in the Fall 1962 issue of Michigan's Voices, and Bonnie Taylor-Blake had discovered it in a letter to the editor in the December 1962 issue of Car Life. Both of these examples were found thanks to Google Books: as the massive digitization project continues to grow, newly scanned sources fill in the historical gaps for words and phrases with murky origins, like "the whole nine yards."

Taylor-Blake has continued to monitor Google Books for newly discoverable attestations, and her vigilance has paid off. The database now includes issues of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground from the 1950s — a publication that continues to be put out by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources under the name Kentucky Afield. Google Books turned up examples of "the whole nine yards" in KHHG from 1956 and 1957. But because the relevant passages are only displayed in "snippet view," Taylor-Blake needed to track down the full context for verification, and the current Kentucky Afield editor helped her out, sending along page scans. On page 18 of the July 1956 issue of KHHG, an article headlined "Kentucky Afield Fishing Derbies Are Underway" describes fishing competitions held around Kentucky and the prizes that the winners would get, including a 14-foot boat trailer and Evinrude motor as the Grand Prize. A paragraph near the end of the article wraps things up with "So that's the whole nine-yards."

The second article, on p. 31 of the January 1957 issue, uses "the whole nine yards" (no hyphen this time) to describe hunters: "These guys go the whole nine yards — no halfway stuff for them." Taylor-Blake determined that the author of both articles was Ron Rhody, and remarkably enough he's still around and even has a blog. Rhody told Taylor-Blake that he thought it was a common expression in Kentucky at the time but didn't have any particular insights about its origins. He surmised that it had to do with football yardage, one of the more popular origin stories. Getting a first down in football requires advancing the ball ten yards, so if it was fourth down with nine yards to go, you could go for it and try to get "the whole nine yards" for a first down instead of safely punting. (See my previous Word Routes column for a roundup of theories.)

And so the search continues. The Kentucky connection is an interesting one, but there's no reason to think that the idiom was particularly localized to that state. Stephen Goranson noted that there was a master's thesis in folklore at Western Kentucky University in 1979 with the title "An' the Whole Nine Yards: an Ethnography of a Kentucky Gunsmith." I got in touch with the author of the thesis, Michael Korn, who now works for the Law Enforcement Bureau of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. He told me that he used that title because Joe Hollingsworth, the late Bowling Green gunsmith who was the subject of the thesis, "regularly used the phrase to describe a custom rifle he was building that had every fancy detail." Korn believes that the expression originated from veterans returning from World War II, like Hollingsworth's father. He subscribes to the common conjecture that "the whole nine yards" originally referred to the length of an ammunition belt for machine guns used during the war.

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.

(If you'd like to hear more about the history of English idioms, take a listen to the hour I spent on WFAE's "Charlotte Talks" earlier this week, along with UNC Charlotte professor Ralf Thiede.)

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday August 3rd 2012, 12:55 AM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
I always assumed it had to do with football, yet that never made sense, because in football, if you only cover nine yards, it's...disappointing. Certainly not a reason to rejoice. However, "the whole ten yards" for a first down would ring true.

I wonder if it could have to do with sailing? So many idioms originate with seamanship, including "three sheets to the wind" and "a loose cannon," I believe. Perhaps nine yards is how much canvas is needed for some small jib sail, or maybe when a sail was fully open, without a reef, it measured nine yards from top to bottom.

At any rate, fun to ponder. Thanks much!
Friday August 3rd 2012, 2:46 AM
Comment by: James H. (Houston, TX)
Got me. I'm a General Contractor & "A fully loaded Concrete Truck is 9 cubic yards". There are some smaller & larger. How much do think this will take ?. " The Whole Nine Yards". Better have some qualified help near.
Friday August 3rd 2012, 3:23 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Also, I was wondering about another saying: "The whole ball of wax."
Friday August 3rd 2012, 6:36 AM
Comment by: Susan M. (East Windsor, NJ)
I had been told it was a dress making term from when women wore long full skirts and maybe hoop skirts. I was told there are nine yards of material on a bolt of cloth and that a really nice dress took "the whole nine yards."
Friday August 3rd 2012, 7:15 AM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
I thought football too. Well, as that may be--thanks for the link to Google Books and for mentioning The American Dialect Society because I'm interested in word origins, but was unaware of the organization.

I wonder if the OED Historical Thesaurus would have information on the origin of, the whole nine yards.
Friday August 3rd 2012, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Michael D.
Q. How many yards of fabric are used in making the Great Kilt?

A. Centuries ago, Highlanders not only hunted and fought in their plaid, they slept in it! The expression, "the whole 9 yards", came from the amount of material (approx. 9 yards) used to outfit our hearty ancestors. In those days, fabric was only woven in single widths (approx. 28 inches). This amount of fabric in single width is equivalent to Highland Secrets' double width fabric (between 4-1/2 and 7-1/2 yards) used in making our Great Kilts. The latter yardage represents a mighty big Highlander!

Came accross this answer when I googled the question responding to some distant recollection in my 72 y.o. Celtic Mind
Friday August 3rd 2012, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
If you check out my 2009 Word Routes column, you'll find many of these theories listed. Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org and Michael Quinion of World Wide Words both dismiss the "cubic yardage of a concrete truck" theory. The "length of material needed for a Scottish kilt" explanation may have played a part, even if all the early examples of the idiom come from the U.S. See Barry Popik's site for a risque kilt story that may have contributed to the expression's use.
Friday August 3rd 2012, 4:53 PM
Comment by: Platte C. (American Fork, UT)
I had always thought the phrase had to do with World War Two ammunition -- specifically the belts used to feed the .50 caliber machine guns in many heavy bombers and fighter planes. When rolled out these belts were exactly 27 feet, and it became common to say a pilot or gunner "gave 'em the whole nine yards" if they had expended all of their ammunition.
Friday August 3rd 2012, 5:42 PM
Comment by: mac
football springs to mind but yes, on further thought, you need ten yards.
one version is close to Platte's comment. it seems the machine guns on fighter planes of WW II were zeroed in with the plane stationary on the ground. and they would fire the "whole nine yards" or 27 foot belts of ammo. wouldn't it be handy to have an eyewitness who might testify . . .
Friday August 3rd 2012, 7:38 PM
Comment by: Richard S.
In WW II in the Pacific, the gun belts on the P-38 fighters were 27
feet long,i.e., nine yards. If a pilot used all of his ammunition on a target he would say, I gave him( the target) the whole nine yards.
Saturday August 4th 2012, 7:40 AM
Comment by: John T. (Livonia, MI)
I also heard a that the ammunition belts of the .50 caliber machine gunners onboard the various U.S. bombers (B-17) were also 27 feet long, hance the 'whole nine yards.'
Sunday August 12th 2012, 2:58 AM
Comment by: Anjali S.
I am from India and always thought it had to do with the length of the sari which is usually 6 yards, but some traditional women still wear the nine yard sari.
Anjali Sethi New Delhi 12 Aug 2012 1220
Wednesday August 22nd 2012, 2:32 AM
Comment by: Scott N. (Encino, CA)
I'm with Michael D. on this one. Scottish kilt makers use 9 yards for making "the Great Kilt". It's expensive and often those with less money would opt for a simpler, shorter length of cloth. Ask any genuine kilt-maker about having a custom-made kilt and you will be asked if you want "the whole nine yards" or some cheap alternative.

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