Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Where Did We Get "The Whole Nine Yards"?

Among the idioms of modern American English, few are as puzzling to unpack as the expression "the whole nine yards," meaning 'the full extent of something.' Though it is of relatively recent vintage, etymologists have yet to discover a credible historical explanation for what the "nine yards" might refer to — there are a multitude of theories, some quite fanciful, but none are supported by documentary evidence. In the past few years, however, some significant progress has been made to unearth early examples of the idiom, which may eventually help to smoke out where those "nine yards" originally came from.

Here are just a handful of the conjectures for the origin of "the whole nine yards":

  • capacity of a ready-made concrete truck, coal truck, or garbage truck (cubic yards)
  • amount of cloth needed for a Scottish kilt, burial shroud, or three-piece suit
  • length of some piece of World War II miltary equipment (bomb rack, ammunition belt, etc.)
  • yardage in American football (ten yards needed for a first down)
  • other types of "yards": properties on a city block, naval shipyards, yardarms on a sailing ship, etc.

(For more theorizing, see Dave Wilton's Wordorigins.org, Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, Gary Martin's Phrase Finder, and Cecil Adams' Straight Dope.)

Despite the plethora of explanations, the expression hasn't been around for very long. Until a few years ago, the earliest recorded examples came from the Vietnam War era, but thanks to the concerted digging of word sleuths, we can now date "the whole nine yards" (and its variants) back to the early 1960s. The current holder of the "earliest attestation" crown was found just last week by Stephen Goranson, who announced his discovery on the American Dialect Society mailing list (ADS-L). It shows up in "Man on the Thresh-Hold," a rambling short story by Robert E. Wegner in the Fall 1962 issue of Michigan's Voices, a quarterly literary magazine. Here is the long stream-of-consciousness sentence in which it appears:

Who knows why a "brush salesman" would be fond of saying "the whole damn nine yards"? This was the era of the Fuller Brush man, the legendary traveling salesman who would go door to door hawking brushes, brooms, mops, and so forth. Maybe it took nine yards of material to make a mop!

The next known example also comes from late 1962, found a couple of years ago by another ADS-L contributor, Bonnie Taylor-Blake. This passage appears in a letter to the editor in the December 1962 issue of Car Life:

This goes a little further toward illuminating the phrase: it appears to be an exaggerated way to describe a long "laundry list" of items, not necessarily some material like ammunition or fabric that can be measured in yards. In an automotive context, the image that might be evoked is a long list of features on a window sticker at an auto dealership. So "nine yards" could simply refer to the length of an itemized list of this sort, with "nine" a more or less arbitrary figure for hyperbolic purposes.

After these two examples from 1962 comes a syndicated newspaper article from April 1964 found by Sam Clements, describing the lingo of the then-burgeoning space program. It appeared in a number of different newspapers, including the San Antonio (Tex.) Express and News (4/18/64) and the Tucson (Ariz.) Daily Citizen (4/25/64). Included in the survey of NASA-talk is this paragraph:

Again we get an image of an extended list of things, in this case "an item-by-item report," with the exaggerated length of nine yards. Since the space program was strongly intertwined with the US Air Force, this example might lend credence to the idea that the phrase was first popularized in Air Force circles before spreading to wider usage. (Perhaps even the brush salesman and the car enthusiast from 1962 had some Air Force ties.) But it's still a bit of a jump to say that the expression originated in World War II military usage, as many claim, since no contemporary wartime evidence has yet been found — let alone evidence that "nine yards" was a measurement for a bomb rack, ammo belt, or some other piece of equipment.

The hunt continues. The above examples have only become locatable quite recently because of rapidly expanding digitization projects for books and periodicals. The 1964 example was found in the Newspaperarchive database, while the 1962 examples were both discovered on Google Book Search — with additional legwork needed to confirm the "snippets" that Google coyly reveals from these sources. (Thanks to Joel Berson and Bonnie Taylor-Blake for sending along hard copies of the relevant pages for these two citations, which they obtained by doing good old-fashioned library research.) I'm confident that some day we will get to the root of the elusive "nine yards" enigma!

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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:

Wednesday March 25th 2009, 7:15 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
And when the origin of the phrase "the whole nine yards" is unearthed,
I hope the whole nine yards of documentation will be readily available.
Wednesday March 25th 2009, 9:24 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Very interesting. I'd like to make a couple of points.

Firstly, I think it's significant that none of the quotes refers to 'nine yards' but to the 'WHOLE' nine yards, or 'ALL' nine yards, or even the 'WHOLE DAMN' nine yards. This suggests to me that whatever it was that needed some yardage didn't in fact NEED nine yards but somewhat less. So giving or buying the 'whole nine yards' was an act of generosity.

Secondly, cloth is not sold in square yards but in yards of material that is on rolls that are of standard widths(eg 60 inches). So a customer might ask the salesman "How much of this tweed would it take to make me a suit?" "Would that be a three-piece suit, sir?" "Yes, of course!" "Let me just take a couple of measurements, sir ... [measures shoulder width and leg length] ... hmm, I'd estimate you'd need 8 yards, 2 feet and 3 inches from this roll, sir." "Righty-ho. Look, just give me the whole nine yards."

I would therefore definitely vote for it referring to a length of material and the kilt sounds a good bet, since the pleating can be very elaborate and therefore require a lot of tartan.

And I've learned that if you dig deep enough, most everything originated in Scotland ...
Wednesday March 25th 2009, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
The fact that traditionally sized cement trucks hold nine yards of concrete always seemed to me most reasonable — and was the thing I thought of right away when I first heard the phrase back in the 60s.
Wednesday March 25th 2009, 2:48 PM
Comment by: James H.
I also like the idea of the Fuller-Brush salesman. It occurred to me while reading that perhaps they referred to their entire catalog as "the whole nine yards" as this would hyperbolize the amount of paper on which it was printed. Any takers?
Wednesday March 25th 2009, 3:04 PM
Comment by: Garland S.
I have a friend who was an Army Colonel in World War II who provided
the following:

27 yards is the length of a machine gun belt on a 50 Caliber machine
gun on aircraft in WWII. After completing a mission, when asked
How did you do, they would answer: We gave them "the whole 9 yards"
meaning that they emptied the entire belt of ammunition (27 feet=
9 yards).

The gentleman from whom I learned this has a wealth of knowledge and
I have no reason to doubt him.

Here's another one: Have you heard the expression "Kilroy was here"?

Kilroy was the inspector in a boatyard in Pascagoula, MS. When he had
completed his inspection, he would write "Kilroy was here" on materials
indicating that he had completed his inspection.

Garland Smith
Thursday March 26th 2009, 3:50 AM
Comment by: Patricia W. (Vancouver, WA)
The most plausible origin of "The whole nine yards" is the rigging on early sailing ships. Square-riggers usually have three masts, each with three sails, which are held up by wooden poles called yards. When all all of the ship's sails were set, it was called "the whole nine yards".

The is explained in 'Nautical Expressions in the Vernacular': If you look at a "typical square-rigger" (see the picture in the front pages of any of the O'Brian books you will see that there are three masts with three yards on each mast.) So if you had all of the square sails a flying on board you would have the whole nine yards in operation. ie. everything.
Thursday March 26th 2009, 4:37 PM
Comment by: Darwin Z.
This story reminds me of a very funny incident. My first job after my surgical residency brought me to
Dubuque , Iowa in 1970. I met a an OB-GYN guy there and we became friends. He was planning to redo his unfinished (dirt floor) basement. He took all the measurements and started on his project thinking about how great his basement was going to be. He figured out exactly how much cement he needed and ordered one full load . "You sure you want a whole load???" said the concrete contractor. " Of course", said my friend "I've measured it exactly " (or something like that). The truck came and he was waiting for it. The driver said " Where do you want this ?" He said "Here in the basement!" "How are we getting it in? " the driver asked. My friend said "Right through this basement window !" The truck driver asked "Who's helping you ? This is a big load and you probably would do well to have a helper", he said. My friend answered, a little bit annoyed that the driver would question this well-thought-out plan by a DOCTOR(heh heh). " I won't need a helper." he reassured the driver who really wanted to get the cement out of his truck before it started to set up. The driver then positioned the delivery trough through the basement window . Again he asked my friend if he wanted "THE WHOLE NINE YARDS" . "Yes , the WHOLE NINE YARDS !" My friend then positioned himself at the end of the delivery device with his hip boots on and a big wide shovel in his hands , ready to distribute the concrete as it came down the trough. The driver then shouted (I'm sure) "Here comes the WHOLE NINE YARDS! " The concrete came down with such force and faster than he expected. It hit the wide shovel and knocked it out of his hands and knocked him off balance ! He fell into the concrete screaming and yelling . The driver couldn't hear because of the distance and the noise and when the "WHOLE NINE YARDS" was in, he came over to the basement window to enquire about the progress only to find my friend covered with concrete(about a foot of it) swearing a blue streak . Needless to say but that's , basically , "THE WHOLE NINE YARDS" story as best as I can recall. DZ
Thursday March 26th 2009, 5:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Don H. and Darwin Z. support the concrete mixer theory, which is indeed one of the more popular explanations. But as Michael Quinion of World Wide Words explains, it's unlikely to be the source of the expression:

One particularly bizarre story that turns up more frequently than any other is that it represents the capacity of a ready-mixed concrete truck, so that the whole nine yards might be a reference to a complete load. It does seem rather unlikely that a term from such a specialist field would become so well known throughout North America, but one or two writers are convinced this is the true origin. However, the capacity of today's trucks varies a great deal, and few of them can actually carry nine cubic yards of concrete. Matthew Jetmore, a contributor to the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup, unearthed evidence from the August 1964 issue of the Ready Mixed Concrete Magazine that this could not have been the origin: 'Whereas, just a few years ago, the 4.5 cubic yard mixer was definitely the standard of the industry, the average nationwide mixer size by 1962 had increased to 6.24 cubic yards, with still no end in sight to the demand for increased payload'. That makes it clear that at the time the expression was presumably coined the usual size was only about half the nine (cubic) yards of the saying.

Patricia W., meanwhile, finds the square-rigger explanation most plausible. But if the origin did indeed lie in the sailing ships of yore, wouldn't we expect to find the expression in use much earlier than 1962? Until more historical evidence is found, it's difficult even to support a point of origin as recent as World War II, let alone the days of the old square-riggers.
Thursday March 26th 2009, 5:26 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
It seems the curiosity in this phrase lies more with "yard" than with "whole nine".

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable offers a page long essay outlining the near mystical significance of "nine" from ancient times, including the observation that doing something "to the nines" has long meant to do it completely. That confirms the opinion of Adm Smyth in his Dictionary of Nautical Terms under the entry "Nines".

So, it appears that "whole nine" is just a more modern way of expressing the idea of "to the nines".

But why "yards"? The previous comment suggests a nautical explanation but, while the argument is reasonable, it lacks evidence of actual usage. Indeed, the link to Gibbons acknowledges the uncertainty. Furthermore, Smyth, referred to above, treats "yard" in its nautical sense at length, but never alludes to "the whole nine yards".

The British online Phrase Finder
makes the following observations, which offers evidence of American usage 20 years earlier than Ben's earliest citation:

"What I am sure of is that the phrase wasn't in wide circulation before 1961 - which tends to rule out many of the suggested sources. Why? In May 1961, the American athlete Ralph Boston broke the world long jump record with a jump of 27 feet 1/2 inch. No one had previously jumped 27 feet. This was big news at the time and widely reported. Surely the feat cried out for this headline?:

"Boston goes the whole nine yards"

"And yet, not a single journalist worldwide came up with that line, which is missing from all newspaper archives. The phrase may have been coined before 1961, but it certainly wasn't then known to that most slang-aware of groups - newspaper journalists.

"The likelihood that the phrase originated in the mid 20th century is supported by the lack of any evidence prior to the early 1960s and the ample printed citations from the late 1960s.

"1. The earliest known example of the phrase in print that I know of is in the US newspaper The Democratic Standard, 14th March 1855. The story it appeared in was a work of fiction rather than of news reporting and was reproduced in several US papers in 1855. It concerned a judge who arrived at an event without a spare shirt and decided to have one made for him. As a joke a friend ordered one with three times the required material, i.e. 'nine yards of bleached domestic and three yards of linen'. The outcome was:

"He found himself shrouded in a shirt five yards long and four yards broad. What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!"

"That does contain the phrase in question and it does relate to yards of material, which is one of the commonly repeated origins. This appears to be by pure chance. After all, the individual words are common enough and have to appear together arbitrarily sometimes. This can't be accepted as the origin.

"2. The earliest known use of the phrase which can be claimed to be a serious contender as the origin dates from 1942. In that year, The Investigation of the National Defense Program: Hearings Before a Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program, heard a testimony by Admiral Emory Scott Land:

"You have to increase from 7.72 to 12 for the average at the bottom of that fifth column, for the whole nine yards."
Thursday March 26th 2009, 5:59 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Phil K.: Though the testimony from Admiral Land in that Congressional hearing does include the phrase "the whole nine yards," it's highly debatable whether it could have any bearing on the history of the idiom. The reference there is to nine naval shipyards, but there's zero evidence connecting those shipyards to any subsequent uses of the expression. You can find an extended discussion of the Land testimony (which, like the 1962 Wegner example above, was first discovered by Stephen Goranson) on the American Dialect Society mailing list here. As Gary Martin says on the Phrase Finder site, "It seems more probable that the juxtaposition of the three words was coincidental and that his usage was merely literal."
Thursday March 26th 2009, 8:19 PM
Comment by: Frank G.
Had to throw another nine into this discussion: there's the phrase, "dressed to the nines", indicating someone who's very well-dressed. This supports Geoff A.'s argument nicely.
Saturday March 28th 2009, 12:05 PM
Comment by: CJP (Boulder, CO)
Excuse me Garland S. please review your first sentence (after the colon); there is an erroneous word.
Sunday April 5th 2009, 10:42 AM
Comment by: A. Z.
Strange... very strange...
Wednesday April 8th 2009, 8:26 AM
Comment by: STEPHAN G. (Ann Arbor, MI)
I would like to add a few anecdotal items to the discussion. I think that any relationship to american football would be erroneous. I played, coached and refereed the sport in the 50's and 60's, and never once heard the phrase used in relation to the sport itself.

I had a summer job with a cement contractor in 1965 - 1967. I definitely heard the foreman and the estimator use the term the "the whole nine yards" when referring to how much concrete it would take to complete a slab of concrete. And I am fairly certain that the newest redi-mix trucks at the time, did in fact have a 9 cubic yard capacity.

However, I don't recall the term being used in the general population until 5 or so years later, and usually by my Army pals coming back from Vietnam. I was a JAG Officer, and was never deployed to Nam myself, so I can't really say why these Nam-Vets came to use the phrase. But their useage of the phrase meant "to give it your all".
Thursday April 9th 2009, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Mark Peters could spend several articles exploring the world of military euphemisms. Garland S. and Stephen G.'s military anecdotes together may be pointing to a very plausible origin. The World War II usage wouldn't have been as wide spread due to .50 calibers being mounted on vehicles and planes, meaning relatively few individuals being exposed to the phrase. By the Vietnam War "small arms" technology had evolved such that a version of the .50 caliber belt fed could be carried by an individual. Each platoon had at least one .50 caliber belt fed type weapon carried by large fellows. If the individual belt fed .50 cal had 9 ft long belts, there would have been greater numbers of individuals using and hearing the phrase, giving it a foothold in the popular lexicon
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 2:53 AM
Comment by: James T M.
A .50 caliber machine gun with 9 feet of bullets would be a heap for a strong, young ground-pounder to carry. 27 feet of bullets would take the whole platoon to carry one gun.
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 2:34 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
"Ground-pounder", another one for Mark.

James T M: It has been my understanding that a .50 cal. toting ground-pounder is by default a pretty hefty lad. So while the .50 grunt doesn't carry that much ammo, any take on the plausibility that "giving them the whole nine yards" started as .50 cal. lingo for "running the weapon dry", then the phrase was mil-speced for .50 field usage to mean the same?
Tuesday May 12th 2009, 8:39 AM
Comment by: George T. (Lawrenceville, GA)
I believe it is older and actually came from World War II. The ammunition belt for the belly gun of an American bomber was 27 feet long, thus when the gunner had fired all his ammo on one belt, he had given the enemy "the whole nine yards".
Saturday August 4th 2012, 7:19 AM
Comment by: Susan W.
I have never played, coached, or refereed American football, but my house was filled with fans every Sunday during the seasons when pro football was making its television debut. Unless my aging memory fails me, that would have been the 1960s and the television announcers kept the fans on the edge of their chairs calling the "down number" followed by the number of yards to go. The kicking game was very popular at that time and when the yardage was long (9-10 yards) and a team had not been able to move the ball in the first three downs, the kicker was brought in the save the team in offence from losing the ball. I know that is when I began hearing it and using it to mean giving something one's best effort to get to the next step. Over these many years since, I have become irritated by the media's apparent need to compare anything and everything to football and/or sports in general, especially when that behavior trivializes the actual story being reported. My limited experience aside, I might concede to the cement yardage and/or the 27 foot long ammunition belts as more than reasonable origin options.

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