Thursday, November 09, 2006

word origin: the whole nine yards

The yards in question have nothing to do with sports. Sorry.

It originally referred to the amount of fabric a customer purchased from a tailor to make a suit. Whan a tailor used the whole nine yards, it meant he hadn't been stingy with the cloth.


GirlGoyle said...

Or the customer needs to go on a diet.

JJ said...

Actually, I heard that it was the length of the bullet belts fed into the wing guns of P-51's. To give someone the whole nine yards was to empty your guns into them.

And then make them a suit.

Party Girl said...


Opps, didn't mean to yell.

JJ: Now, that you mention that one, I do recall hearing that one also. I guess it depends on your mood that day as to which one you want.

Tom Serafini, Actor to the Stars! said...

The way I heard it was it was a WWII reference to the Corair fighter ammunition belt. It came in a length of nine yards and they loaded it into the wing bays of the fighter.

I'd love to know the real story behind it now.

Methinks you've begun a mystery...So, how 'bout those boobs?

Party Girl said...

Okay, Well, I've checked out the sites. I've seen all of the variations and well, looks like no one really knows where this one comes from.


Here is another one I found from:

This phrase is of unknown origin and is the subject of some debate. At issue is to what does nine yards refer. The meaning is clearly the entirety or everything, but nine yards is not a significant measure of anything. All we know about its origin is that the phrase cannot be traced any earlier than the mid-1960s and that it is American in origin.

Perhaps the most common assumption is that it is from American football, but the canonical distance in that game is ten, not nine, yards. Also common are explanations based on length of cloth, but there is no standard length for a bolt of cloth (which measure anywhere from twenty to twenty-five yards), and nine yards is not a significant measure for any type of garment (a man's suit uses about seven yards of a thirty-inch bolt, double folded; sarongs, saris, kilts, kimonos, bridal veils and any number of other garments have been suggested, none with any accompanying evidence).

The explanation that is currently circulating around the internet most frequently is that nine yards was the length of a belt of machine gun ammunition carried by a WWII fighter plane. To "give it the whole nine yards" was to expend all of one's ammo. This explanation is almost certainly false. For one thing, the type of fighter varies with the teller, sometimes Spitfires in the Battle of Britain, sometimes varying American fighters in the South Pacific. Another reason to doubt it is that ammunition is either counted in rounds or by weight. It is never measured in length of a belt. Chapman points to an origin in the Army and Air Force, which fits in with the post-WWII-era origin, but is otherwise unexplained.

Newspaper columnist and language commentator James Kirkpatrick favors the explanation that it is a reference to the capacity of ready-mix concrete trucks (Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art). Safire also plumps for this explanation. This explanation, however, is somewhat questionable as the August 1964 issue of Ready Mixed Concrete magazine gives an average concrete mixer as having a capacity of four and a half cubic yards "just a few years ago" and an average of under six and a half in 1962. A 1988 source (Cecil Adams in More of the Straight Dope), states current mixers range from seven to ten cubic yards, with a rough average of nine. While current averages may be on target, when the phrase arose, the average cement payload was less than four and a half cubic yards. So the cement truck explanation is probably incorrect.

Chapman also suggests that it may be related to the British phrase dressed to the nines, where presumably nine has some numerological significance. He also suggests that yard may refer to the slang usage of that word to mean one hundred dollars.

Other explanations include:

The amount of dirt in a large burial plot;
The number of properties, or yards, in a standard city block in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Levittown, (pick your city);
The amount of cloth used in a burial shroud;
The capacity of coal trucks; and
The number of yards on a square rigged sailing ship (yards being the horizontal poles that hold the sails), even though it was not uncommon for such ships to have eighteen yards.
One final possibility is that it does derive from American football, but was originally intended to be ironic. To go "the whole nine yards" was to fall just short of the goal.

In summary, this is just one of those idiomatic phrases that defy explanation. This may not be satisfying, but it is not uncommon in English.

Egan said...

Wow, my head is spinning with all these variations.

JJ said...

That is fascinating. I have to admit I'm an etymo... ety... I'm hung up on word origins. Do another one!

puerileuwaite said...

Nine yards? Wow, that does sound like a lot of cloth. Who is this guy, "Aldo the Tentmaker"?