I have been reluctant to tackle the subject of the whole nine yards because there is such a welter of varying opinion about its origin that I hardly know where to begin—or to end. One of my avidly curious readers, however, has raised the question, and in order to maintain my stellar reputation for customer satisfaction, it behooves me to attempt some disquisition of this enigmatic subject.
The whole nine yards—meaning “everything, completely, to the maximum, the full extent”—is a surprisingly recent arrival on the idiomatic scene. The earliest anyone claims to have seen it in print was July 1956, in Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, a magazine devoted to hunting and fishing in the Bluegrass State. The magazine listed some fishing prizes to be awarded and concluded, “So that’s the whole nine-yards.”
A satisfactory explanation of the phrase has eluded the most dedicated word sleuths. Ben Zimmer, who writes about language for The New York Times, likens the search to the quest for the Holy Grail.
Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, listed the most popular theories about its origin as the amount of cloth in a Scottish kilt, the capacity of a concrete truck, and the length of aircraft machine gun belts in World War II. The late New York Times pundit William Safire devoted nine different columns to the whole nine yards, before concluding firmly in favor of the cement mixer—as expressed in cubic yards.
Michael Quinion, who writes the blog World Wide Words, puts forward several other possibilities: the length of a standard bolt of cloth, the amount of fabric needed for a three-piece suit, the size of a nun’s habit, the length of a maharajah’s sash, the capacity of a West Virginia ore wagon, the volume of rubbish in a standard garbage truck, the length of a hangman’s noose, how far you would have to sprint from the cellblock to the outer wall in a jailbreak, the length of a shroud, the size of a soldier’s pack, a reference to a group of nine shipyards in the World War II, or a distance in football.
Earlier examples—the first in 1912—have been found of the phrase whole six yards, leading to the conclusion that none of the explanations is correct and that the number nine is merely arbitrary, not referring to anything in particular. Jesse Sheidlower, an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, is of this opinion. “The existence of a six-yard variant,” he says, “shows pretty clearly that it’s not about yards of anything”
Several terms similar in meaning are equally obscure in origin, namely whole hog (1828), whole shebang (1869), and whole ball of wax (1882). If you’re really interested in this, see my earlier blog on shebang at: http://wordsgoingwild.blogspot.com/search?q=shebang
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou insists that the phrase refers to nine yards of ale, the amount he regularly consumes on his visits to a nearby pub, before scrawling claptrap like the following on the men’s room wall:
A daring young Captain of Guards
Was intent on advancing nine yards,
The first eight were fine,
But he hit a land mine
At the ninth—please send sympathy cards.