I’ve written about “the whole nine yards” more than once as new evidence has emerged; the last time was back in 2009. Now a startling new development has thrown the number of yards into question and antedated the phrase by decades, to 1912. To quote Jennifer Schuessler’s NY Times story:

The recent discovery of several instances of “the whole six yards” in newspapers from the 1910s — four decades before the earliest known references to “the whole nine yards” — opens a new window onto “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time,” said Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who announced the findings in next month’s issue of The Yale Alumni Magazine.
Other language experts agree about the import of the discovery. “The phrase is interesting because it’s so mysterious,” said Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of Visual and, who has written previously on the search for its origin. “It’s been a kind of Holy Grail.”

See Schuessler’s story for details; I like very much the final quote from Shapiro: “People are drawn to colorful etymologies. But they are almost always wrong.”


  1. who announced the findings in next month’s issue
    You can’t say that, surely. She’s just trying to cause trouble.

  2. Crown, it’s not a problem. The date on an issue of a periodical is the date to remove it from the shelves, so next month’s issue may well be on sale today. I just received my snail-mailed copy of the March 2013 issue of a different monthly periodical.

  3. If “the whole N yards” is Appalachian slang, and it entered popular use through the space program, then Chuck Yeager’s hometown newspaper might be a good place to look for it.

  4. John: I’ve never understood the logic. If the magazine shows the month it goes on sale, then people would know to remove it simply when the next edition comes in. Perhaps it was originally a marketing trick to make people think they wer getting the very latest edition (though why the date a month or two ahead would do that…)
    Le Monde is always dated the day after publication. This was originally because, as it’s a Paris afternoon paper, copies sent to the further reaches of the country would go on sale the next morning, thus with the correct date on them for those buyers. No logic now, with much faster distribution and the paper being printed simultaneously in various cities outside Paris, but they’re stuck with it.

  5. At school, when we didn’t refer to Le Monde as Le Frog we called it L’outofdate.

  6. Mind you, when I went to university I found that the cure for thinking Le Frog boring was to read the NYT.

  7. Martin Langeveld says:

    Here and there, “the whole six yards” seems to have survived the inflation to nine. For example, here’s a 1985 book quoting a guy talking about Tupelo Miss. in the 1950s.
    And with the suggested “backwoods” Kentucky origin, you have to thinking about a coal-mining connection. (Tupelo is not far from Tennessee mining country.)
    Early coal mine regulations mention a six-yard limit on the width of bords or excavation passages. (Also cited here.)
    And here is a British citation detailing piecework wage rates for miners that says (in the footnotes):

    “Bord” is the name of the working place of the miners in what is known as the “whole”: the bords are usually six yards wide a yardage rate in addition to the tonnage rate being paid for “narrow bords” ie. bords of less than the recognised width.

    This goes on to say that when two men were required to work together in a bord or wall, they were paid extra. But, of course, they probably earned less because they were not working “the whole six yards” of a standard bord. They would also make less in a “narrow bord”. Hence, for miners working piecework wages, the best deal was to be working “the whole six yards” by yourself.
    All of this pertains to British and Australian coal mining, but the same terminology and working practices were in place for Kentucky mines and elsewhere.

  8. des von bladet says:

    “People are drawn to colorful etymologies. But they are almost always wrong, as are the etymologies.”

  9. Martin Langeveld says:

    One more coal mining bit, from a 1954 book of recollections by a miner presumably active in the 20s. The Google Books page shows snippet view only. In the search result, there’s a bit more: “As soon as the gap between the conveyor and the coal face was full it would roll straight on to the belt, thus going away without any shovelling. When the conveyor was late starting I’d soon have the whole six yards of the belt buried in coal, …”
    IOW the miner has a six-yard face to work on, and six yards of conveyor to fill. Someone with access to the book could check this but I believe in this case the reference is to the early machine stage of coal mining where the face was cut by machine but still had to be loaded onto the conveyor by hand. The author seems to have discovered a knack for tipping the cut face into the conveyor without shoveling, loading up the whole six yards “without any shovelling.”
    Detailed descriptions and diagram.
    You can call it colorful etymology, if you wish. But note that both of the new early citations (Spartanburg SC, Mount Vernon KY) are both in or near coal country.

  10. We’ll just keep having to invent new colorful etymologies to make up for the ones which get debunked, then.
    For example, I convinced a friend of mine on facebook that “candelabra” is a corruption of “candle arbor” for “candle tree”, as the plural of “candle stick”.

  11. That’s a good example of why we write facebook “friend”.

  12. des von bladet, Martin Langevold is pointing out the likely origin, without refering to the connection to newspaper usage. Since it was undoubtedly verbal, through the miners to the general public, more nitty-gritty research needs to be done.
    It reminds me of when I was researching loggers’ slang a quarter of a century ago. Much of it had been in people’s speech, including mine, ‘since time immemorial’, but there was no ‘time’ to ferret out a paper trail.

  13. Yes, it seems someone should try looking through unpublished documents, letters, etc. from KY coal miners.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    I’m pretty sure Des’s comment wasn’t aimed at Martin’s etymology. While it’s true that people (i.e. me) love colourful etymologies, I think the particular case for an origin in coalminer’s slang is strong. Ideally I’d like to see it gain metaphorical power step by step, but that may be too much to expect.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    I have now read Ben Zimmer’s article, the comments on it, a few comments on other online sources, and LH’s postings of 2007 and 2009. There are two areas of inquiry with this phrase: the first attestation with the modern, metaphorical meaning “the whole thing”, and the origin of the phrase in its concrete use. The origin is what interests me.
    Hat’s earliest post on the topic was June 21, 2007. At the time, a person signing “mike” searched old newspaper archives and found two advertisements, from 1897 and 1901 respectively, from stores advertising some minor textiles (long narrow strips used in clothing construction or decoration) sold in 9-yard lengths, promising “the full nine yards”, which suggested that some manufacturers were not delivering the promised nine yards of whatever. I thought that the textile area was a very likely origin, and wrote more about it in response to “mike” and also in a later thread. This sort of ad would have been directed at people involved in making garments, whether tailors or seamstresses, including the many housewives who made their own clothes and those of their children (rarely men’s suits, which were made by tailors). I thought that “the full” or “the whole nine yards” might have started in that context and been picked up by men who had heard it from their mothers, sisters and other female relatives.
    The phrase “nine yards” recurs in several contexts, but the oldest ones (rightly or wrongly) seem to be about textiles, including those for making shirts, sails, kilts, etc. Among the few other attestations I saw at the time was a 19th century letter by a man asked by his wife to buy her “nine yards of lace”. Just recently I have seen several references to a “nine-yard kilt”, the amount of cloth needed for a large man according to Wikipedia. Such references suggest that “nine yards” was a standard measure of woven cloth. However, while the “yard” has not varied substantially in centuries, the widths of cloth have changed, so that the length needed for a given garment is not necessarily the same nowadays as it was at various points in the past, depending on the width available. For instance, the article mentioning the large “nine-yard kilt” gives more common lengths of 6 to 8 yards in a narrower cloth (which was probably the older width), but 3 to 4.5 yards in a cloth of double the width. Same thing with the length of a bolt of cloth: current factory-made bolts are much longer than nine yards (but often in multiples of 9, such as 36), but nine yards was probably the length of bolts woven on the older looms, powered by hand and foot. Textiles are made by interlocking the warp (lengthwise threads) and the woof (cross threads). The warp threads (originally spun by hand) need to be somewhat longer than the desired piece of cloth. Setting them by hand on a hand loom is difficult and time-consuming work, as they need to be evenly tensed, and in order to maintain the tension and to not become tangled with each other, they are wound around a cylinder, which unrolls as the work progresses (and the new cloth is wound around another cylinder). Very long threads, especially thin ones, would not have been easy to manipulate in order to set the warp properly, and this imposed a limit on the length of the cloth.
    Until I read something more convincing, I still think that the “nine-yard” measure arose from the context of textile manufacture, and was later transferred to other contexts. The fact that in one type of US cannon is twenty-seven feet long, and some trucks carry nine cubic yards of heavy materials, cannot just be a coincidence, but neither cannons of this size, or heavy trucks, are of ancient provenience.
    “The whole nine yards” in its metaphorical sense appears to have become popular, only a half-century or so ago, in the US Army, which was then composed exclusively of men. I can imagine some young soldiers encountering a 27 foot long cannon with equally long accessories and exclaiming about “the whole nine yards”, a phrase they had heard in their families. As regards “whole” rather than “full”, it is possible that the textile “full nine yards” known mostly by women was crossed with the Kentucky miners’ “whole six yards”, used mostly by men. But the uses of such phrases were probably limited to work situations, and therefore unlikely to show up in published documents until quite recently.

  16. Martin Langeveld says:

    Just coming back here to say, I really have to doubt the textile derivation. There was no standardized bolt length in 19th century textile mills, or that connection would have been clear long ago.
    But there WAS standardization in the coal mines, including “whole six yards” in reference to work space. So what we have here is (a) the documented mine terminology, (b) earliest documented uses a cluster in US coal mining country, (d) next cluster arises in air force and early space program, (e) a possible vector: test pilot Chuck Yeager (mentioned upthread) who was born near coal country in West Virginia, and who used “whole nine yards” twice in his autobiography. In fact, possibly he was not only the vector but also the mutation agent.

  17. Yes, I’m surprised at how strongly marie-lucie clings to the textile derivation, but we all have our beloved theories.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    LH, you must know that although I am stubborn, if it turns out I am wrong I am always ready to acknowledge it.
    Martin L, points taken, but I think that there is more to say, so more later.

  19. What do those of you in the “fabric” and “coal-mining” camps make of the uses of “tell” and “give” in examples from 1912 and 1916?
    The first example (1912) is “[j]ust wait boys until the fix gets to a fever heat and they will tell the whole six yards.” The second, from a month later, is “[a]s we have been gone for a few days and failed to get all the news for this issue we will give you the whole six yards in our next.” The third sighting (1916) is “[i]n your last week’s editorial you sure did give them the whole six yards.”
    To me, that 1964 article on NASA-speak provides an interesting comparison because it holds that “‘[g]ive ‘em the whole nine yards’ is an item-by-item report on any project.” There’s no verb associated with “The Whole Six Yards of It,” that 1921 newspaper article headline, but the article attached to that headline clearly gives an inning-by-inning report on a baseball game.
    For what it’s worth, as with “tell,” I see “give” used in the sense of “to put forth in words” [OED 16a] and, well, “to tell [a person]” [OED 16c]. This sense of telling leads me away from a theory involving coal-mining or fabric.

  20. Martin, above you had written,
    “All of this pertains to British and Australian coal mining, but the same terminology and working practices were in place for Kentucky mines and elsewhere.”
    Sorry, but can you show me examples of the same terminology and practices in use in mines of the southern Appalachians or other parts of the United States? It’s just that I’m having trouble finding that information.

  21. Martin L: It may also be relevant that, according to Tom Wolfe, Yeager was responsible for the popularity of Southern/Appalachian accents (of various degrees of authenticity) in military and commercial aviation.

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