I TIE MY HAT.

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—
I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there—I weigh
The time ’twill be till six o’clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my ticking—through—
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman—When the Errand’s done
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes
To bear on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—
‘Twould start them—
We—could tremble—
But since we got a Bomb—
And held it in our Bosom—
Nay—Hold it—it is calm—
Therefore—we do life’s labor—
Though life’s Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—
      —Emily Dickinson


Dickinson wrote this poem around 1862, at a time when, as her editor Thomas H. Johnson wrote, she “was undergoing an emotional disturbance of such magnitude that she feared for her reason.” It moves from an apparently anodyne celebration of “Life’s little duties” to a harrowing expansion of Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” America’s greatest nineteenth-century poet (and perhaps its greatest poet without qualification) is too often seen as a quirky versifier who tossed everything into a hymn-quatrain blender; this, like many better-known poems, gives the lie to such condescension. Not needing to tie my hat, I tip it to Mark, from whose indispensable site I took the poem. (Note: The meter would be better served if “precisely” were on the third line rather than the second.)

Comments

  1. The syntax of “I weigh the time it will be until six o’clock” (emphasis added) seems very curious. It’s not clear if time refers to a duration or a set of moments: presumably the former is meant, but it sound like “I weigh (say) two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock, and five o’clock”, made as precise as you like.

  2. This is indeed a glorious poem and I agree with you about Dickinson being almost undoubtedly America’s greatest 19th Century poet (though I could understand people who’d make the same claim for Whitman and Poe). Who I consider America’s greatest 20th Century poet suffers from a similar reputation as a quirky versifier who tossed everything into his typographical blender, E. E. Cummings.
    Personally I like the long caesura created by putting “precisely” in the second line. There’s a note of sadness that enters into the poem in that pause.

  3. Bill Walderman says:

    Thanks for a powerful poem I’d never read before.

  4. A.J.P. Crown says:

    What are your criteria for calling someone (anyone) “America’s greatest nineteenth-century poet (and perhaps its greatest poet without qualification)”? Kári Tulinius at least says there may be some doubt. I think the whole idea is a bit nuts, myself. America’s tallest poet? fine. America’s fastest writer of poetry? no problem. “Greatest” is very subjective.

  5. Rhymes “away” with “I weigh”– and then jumps off a cliff.
    In my very subjective opinion, Dickinson is in a class by herself– so ‘greatest’ is sort of beside the point.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    It does not seem to me that the first lines of the poem are “a celebration” of “life’s little duties”. I understand it as meaning that even under the shock alluded to later, she is still able to attend to little things, putting on her hat and shawl to go out, estimating the time she has for chores, etc. In other words her life is continuing on automatic pilot after the huge emotional shock which makes such daily activities meaningless.
    Some time ago there was (here or somewhere else?) a report that it had been discovered that Emily Dickinson had had a boyfriend or fiance for years but that her father absolutely refused his consent to their marriage. The unanticipated refusal may have caused the devastating shock.

  7. It was prescient indeed for Emily to mention Hat in the very first line, decades before his birth.

  8. It was prescient indeed for Emily to mention Hat in the very first line, decades before his birth.

  9. “Greatest” is very subjective.
    Yes, of course. I am not claiming some sort of impossible objective truth value. It is my (strong) opinion that she is America’s greatest nineteenth-century poet (incontestably greater than Poe; with Whitman, it becomes a matter of what you value in poetry).
    It does not seem to me that the first lines of the poem are “a celebration” of “life’s little duties”.
    No, of course not, once you’ve read the whole poem. When you first encounter it, you have no idea where it’s going, and “I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—/ Life’s little duties do” gives no hint of any “huge emotional shock.”

  10. marie-lucie says:

    OK, LH, I will agree with you on that. Still, I think “celebration” is a little strong, although the way many people nowadays “celebrate” things leads me to suspect that the words are not as meaningful as they used to be.

  11. rootlesscosmo says:

    The Lied and Art Songs Text site
    http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/
    lists 253 settings of Dickinson but none of this poem. I can see why–besides the metric difficulties, it’s an emotional powerhouse, and it would be a very brave composer who undertook to fit music to it. I’d sure listen to any attempt, though.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    “emotional powerhouse” it certainly is, rootlesscosmo, thank you for this characterization, and for the link.

  13. Bill Walderman says:

    John Adams–a composer who uses the contrast between tonality and atonality, or rather between different levels of tonality and atonality, as a coloristic effect–could do this.

  14. Bill Walderman says:

    Unfortunately Ligeti is dead.

  15. I wonder how you crease a shawl and why.

  16. A.J.P. Crown says:

    This is a very good poem. What is the meaning of capitalizing some nouns?

  17. Where’s the mystery? I mean, apart any supposition of Masonic symbolism? The streets of Cologne throng with Turkish women in shawls. Granted, they wear them mostly on the head instead of around the neck, as Emily has the speaker doing (the freer, younger ones will wear one around the neck, with nothing on the head). But a crease is simply a fold smoothed down, to look neat.
    I’ve alway liked the sound of caul. It seems to have no etymological connection with shawl:

    The amnion or inner membrane inclosing the fœtus before birth; esp. this or a portion of it sometimes enveloping the head of the child at birth, superstitiously regarded as of good omen, and supposed to be a preservative against drowning.

  18. What is the meaning of capitalizing some nouns?
    It’s one of her idiosyncrasies, like all the dashes. I’m guessing it comes from her having read old books in which capital letters were used far more freely (as in the 18th century—I don’t know when the change to modern use took place, but certainly it had by her day), but if anyone knows more about the subject, by all means speak.

  19. I conflated scarves and shawls. To me, a shawl is larger than a scarf and often has a fringe. In Cologne you see headscarves on the Turkish women, and the older ones sometimes wear a kind of smallish fringed shawl across the neck and shoulders, crossed over the chest.
    My main point was, the scarves and shawls all have neatly creased boundaries. Emily lived before Isadora Duncan, at a time when (I suppose) shawls were seldom of cashmere, which doesn’t crease well, but of wool or cotton, depending on the time of year and financial circumstances.

  20. i recalled i read where i don’t remember exactly MT wrote that she uses a lot of dashes because she was taught music from a very young age and used to visualize words like notes iirc
    i read the poem is about keeping up the daily routine helps one to stay sane, so, yeah, autopilot
    it’s like Pushkin’s privuchka svushe nam dana zamena schastiyu ona

  21. marie-lucie says:

    A shawl is very wide, a scarf is narrow. A shawl can wrap around the body, or at least the head and full torso, it is too big to wear just around the neck. In the 19th century and before, women wore shawls to go outside, not coats. Most women had shawls in different fabrics according to the seasons.
    At one point I worked at a historical site where the staff was supposed to dress and act as in the mid-19th century. For the women this meant long, full-skirted dresses, and shawls. For shawls we had tartans: 4×8 ft pieces of wool cloth. To wear the shawl you first fold the tartan in half, resulting in a double thick 4×4 square, then fold this diagonally for a triangle of quadruple thickness. In very cold weather we even used two shawls on top of each other, so we were wearing 8 thicknesses of cloth on top of our dresses. I can testify that a full-length skirt (over at least one full-length petticoat) and 8 thicknesses of wool cloth over the head and body keep you toasty warm when you go outside in the snow, by creating air pockets around your whole body. For insulation this is much better than a coat with sleeves, which isolate the arms from the body. (On the other hand, there is less freedom of movement).
    When a square piece of cloth is folded diagonally, the long edge of the triangle is on the bias and is not stable, and if placed over the head or just around the shoulders there will be extra fabric sticking up and the shawl will tend to slip down. In order for the shawl to stay neat and close to the body around the neck and shoulders (or over the head) you need to make a second fold along the bias. This gives the impression of a long collar when worn. Perhaps “creasing the shawl” refers to this double fold, possibly emphasized by pressing with an iron (depending on the fabric) before wearing the shawl.

  22. ToussianMuso says:

    I knew right away that this must be Emily Dickinson; the meter and the dashes were a dead giveaway. But after I was done congratulating myself for the recognition, I actually read the content. I love the way she expresses how small pragmatic tasks can require a hurculean effort when one is falling apart internally. That’s what this one says to me, and all the dashes here are effective in creating this feeling of falling apart or faltering.
    In one of my favorites, she finds an ironically eloquent way to express her own inability to express herself:
    I felt a cleavage in my mind
    As if my brain had split.
    I tried to match it, seam by seam,
    But could not make them fit.
    The thought behind I strove to join
    Unto the thought before,
    But sequence raveled out of reach
    Like balls upon a floor.
    I have no idea when this was written relative to the one posted above.

  23. Just what is the (post-)modern thinking on her capitalization and punctuation? On the one hand, Mrs. Todd and other early editors standardized it to late 19th century norms. On the other hand, Thomas H. Johnson’s complete edition, which we grew up on, and which gives us that immediate typographical recognitition, seemed to restore something from the manuscripts. On the other hand, publishing those manuscripts and a variorum edition shows that when the same poem is copied, it isn’t consistent. Didn’t Ralph W. Franklin hold that much was due to the characteristic variability of 19th century handwriting, particularly women’s? On the other hand, fair copy sent to friends often is consistent, suggesting that there was the possibility of a final version.
    I recuse myself on the greatest poet: Longfellow, Alden & Harlow designed the present form of our house.

  24. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Richardson was the great-grandson of Joseph Priestley.

  25. marie-lucie: Thanks very much for that enlightening comment! I’m always amazed by the unexpected combinations of expertise people have.

  26. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Yes, a great comment, m-l. You know a lot about different fabrics. Not many people these days seem to use the word ‘bias’, apart from my mother. You’re too young to have worn the new look, but I expect you learnt about it. The way fabrics fall when they’re cut on the bias is amazing to me.

  27. marie-lucie: Thanks for the useful explanation! Now my stumbling lines can be consigned to the dust. I just felt that somebody had to say something pour dissiper le mystére-pli qui n’en devrait être un, if the ladies didn’t or wouldn’t. It just goes to show.

  28. Grumbly Stu says:

    Pardon my fractured French, if such it be, marie-lucie! I was amazed that a phrase just sprang from my head, even if it’s not fully grown. All that Beauvoir and Sartre seems to be paying a small dividend. Anyway, nothing aimed, nothing gained.

  29. Grumbly Stu says:

    Pardon my fractured French, if such it be, marie-lucie! I was amazed that a phrase just sprang from my head, even if it’s not fully grown. All that Beauvoir and Sartre seems to be paying a small dividend. Anyway, nothing aimed, nothing gained.

  30. Grumbly Stu says:

    My wireless connection has reset itself several times in the last few minutes. Firefox is not dealing with this correctly, thus the reduplicated post.

  31. I’ve read that Dickinson’s marks are derived from marks elocutionists used to notate speeches, and aren’t punctuation marks at all. (Or, alternatively, do somewhat the same thing that punctuation marks do, but much more).
    That’s all I know, and I have no idea whether the theory was confirmed.

  32. I’ve read that Dickinson’s marks are derived from marks elocutionists used to notate speeches, and aren’t punctuation marks at all. (Or, alternatively, do somewhat the same thing that punctuation marks do, but much more).
    That’s all I know, and I have no idea whether the theory was confirmed.

  33. Grumbly Stu says:

    marks elocutionists used to notate speeches

    Is there really a systematics for that? Occasionally I’ve tried to record a short story or passage of interesting text, because I would like to do some reading for the blind. I’ve had to invent my own marks. The main reason they haven’t helped is that I don’t really know how to read something out loud – I overdramatize and overstress, both in English and German. Nothing like the wonderful audio book readers I’ve listened to in my time – lots of Hardy, Dickens and Middlemarch.

  34. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Here’s a nice article in the NY Times about Bill Stout and his unbelievably fantastic architectural bookstore in San Francisco.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for your nice comments, LH, AJP and Stu. As I mentioned at some earlier point, I am descended from a long line of seamstresses both professional and amateur.
    The time I spent working at the historic site is the source of some of my best memories. Everyone at the site was encouraged to learn some skills which could have been practiced on the spot: for instance, one man taught himself to make barrels, all the women learned to spin wool. While I worked there I researched and made a dress for myself (a historical replica), designed period dresses for other women and helped them make them, and also made 10 men’s outfits (shirts and pants). I would not have spent the rest of my life there, but it was a great experience.
    While I am on the topic of old-fashioned clothing:
    A year or two ago there was a discussion here about the origin of the expression “the whole nine yards”. I suggested that it probably referred originally to things such as ribbons or other kinds of cloth tape, which would be typically sold in that length, wrapped around a paper or carboard support.
    A few months ago while visiting my family I had to find something in my mother’s sewing closet. In the course of rummaging around I found a piece of black cloth tape which must have been about 100 years old (it could have belonged to her own mother or perhaps even her grandmother), still wrapped around a cardboard circle just like ribbons are now. On the cardboard were the name of the manufacturer and the length: 8m. That means 800 cm, while 9 yards = 9x90cm = 810 cm. So, my guess is that such tape manufactured in Europe was 4” short of 9 yards, while English or American manufacturers gave “the whole nine yards”.

  36. scarabaeus says:

    scarves-not that long ago Females were required not to seduce the males by showing off their tresses, so it came in handy to use scarf/shawl to pacify the preacher, thus the males would start praying again.

  37. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Marie-Lucie, you linguists have made me wary of accepting anecdotal explanations, but I find your reasoning more convincing than the story about the 9 cubic yards of concrete. More fun too, really.

  38. “The whole nine yards” I always thought was a football reference, ten yards being needed for a “down”.

  39. Thanks m-l for such a thorough answer to my shawl crease question. Not particularly surprising that someone with an interest in language would also do reenactments (in another incarnation I was once a Viking priestess) although Hat as Dionysis I really didn’t see coming.
    AJP, a garment is not really cut on the bias, this would make the seams unstable and they would break as the garment stretched. Here is the best I can do for how to lay out “flared” skirt patterns for the “new look” of the 40′s. They are the ones with an arc, not the squares and rectangles. The fabric is folded the long way and the center of the front of the skirt goes on the fold. This puts the front on the length of the fabric, the most stable part which is least likely to stretch. The side seams end up on the width of the fabric which is less stable , but still doesn’t stretch too much for a seam.
    An Arab scarf is also worn on the bias and has the same problem m-l describes with regard to having a tendency to gap. Here is the way the Palestinian scarf is worn. This particular scarf was a square folded corner to corner with the long edge of the triangle worn over the top of the head. In this part of the middle east, not even one hair is supposed to show, so a small fold is made in the scarf from the top of the head to the ear, which allows it to fit more snugly.

  40. Speaking of archaic crafts, I have a former neighbor who cocheted something like lace (not true lace, people tell me). She made doilies by the dozen, because people wanted them, but she had 50-100 of crochet books and I’m sure she could have done something ambitious.
    She’s 85+ years old and has been dirt poor all her life while working constantly. About as close to a peasant woman as you could find in the US.

  41. Speaking of archaic crafts, I have a former neighbor who cocheted something like lace (not true lace, people tell me). She made doilies by the dozen, because people wanted them, but she had 50-100 of crochet books and I’m sure she could have done something ambitious.
    She’s 85+ years old and has been dirt poor all her life while working constantly. About as close to a peasant woman as you could find in the US.

  42. “The whole nine yards” I always thought was a football reference, ten yards being needed for a “down”.
    That doesn’t make any sense. It would be “the whole ten yards.”

  43. Crochet is done with a hook. Tatting was also done in the midwest–it used a small shuttle and the end result looked like lace. There was also an old type of Irish lace considered in Chicago’s Irish neighborhoods to be exotic that was done by weaving with a set of bobbins. All of the above was quite labor intensive. There is no reason whatsoever to spend days or weeks making something handmade anymore when you can work an extra hour of overtime and buy something made in a Chinese sweatshop, unless of course you want something unusual for reenacting.

  44. “the whole nine yards”
    I first heard it in the 80′s from someone who liked to use a lot of sports metaphors. He used it in the sense of etcetera or to describe someone going on and on about something unnecessarily. The phrase “dog and pony show” was used in the same office in a similar way. I interpreted it to mean “a lot, but not enough to be meaningful”.

  45. “the whole nine yards”
    The guy who used the phrase had been in the service; I got the idea the phrase came from the military.

  46. nine is the most auspicious number in our folklore, so people say nine directions(eson zug, naiman zovhis) of the world, nine precious things
    (eson erdene), nine tricks (eson shid) etc
    just recalled, k slovu tak skazat’

  47. Gary Martin of phrases.org.uk on the origins of “the whole nine yards.”

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, even though I once worked at a historic site, I would not call myself a “reenactor”. Making period costumes was challenging and fun but more like making costumes for the theatre (even though theatre costumes cannot be exact replicas for a variety of reasons, especially the need to change quickly).
    The “nine yards” thing: I think that the original reference was lost once more clothes were made industrially, and the phrase “the whole nine yards” passed into general speech, especially that of men who were not familiar with the making of garments generally. So all kinds of strange origins have been proposed, none of which fit so well, not only with the meaning, but also with the concrete evidence.
    When the phrase was discussed on an earlier LH thread, what brought my attention to the possible “cloth tape” origin was a comment by a man who had found something related on a website, which unfortunately I have forgotten.

  49. A.J.P. Crown says:

    My mother makes bobbin lace. It is not Irish. It began to be made in Italy in the Sixteenth Century, but it was really developed in Flanders. It is/was also subsequently made in England and other parts of Europe. My mother sometimes goes to stay at a convent in Bruges where they swap lace-making information. The pillow with its bobbins and lace is quite lovely. Here is a Belgian piece close up.

  50. A.J.P. Crown says:

    There is no reason whatsoever to spend days or weeks making something handmade anymore when you can work an extra hour of overtime and buy something made in a Chinese sweatshop, unless of course you …
    don’t approve of Chinese sweatshops.

  51. A.J.P. Crown says:

    To Nij:
    “A garment made of woven fabric is said to be “cut on the bias” when the fabric’s warp and weft threads are at 45 degrees to its major seam lines.” See here.
    Also in the Wiki article: “In the Middle Ages, before the development of knitting, hose were cut on the bias in order to make them fit better. The old spelling was byesse.” I guess that makes it a French word.

  52. I think that the original reference was lost once more clothes were made industrially, and the phrase “the whole nine yards” passed into general speech
    Read the excellent link provided by Kári Tulinius. The phrase (as now used) did not exist before the 1960s.

  53. The woman I know made lace to fill her time and keep busy, and for gifts. But she was poor enough that the couple hundred dollars a year also meant something to her. She’s one of the few people I’ve ever known who never watched TV, or at least not until she moved in with her son next door to me.

  54. The woman I know made lace to fill her time and keep busy, and for gifts. But she was poor enough that the couple hundred dollars a year also meant something to her. She’s one of the few people I’ve ever known who never watched TV, or at least not until she moved in with her son next door to me.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    “In the Middle Ages, before the development of knitting, hose were cut on the bias in order to make them fit better. The old spelling was byesse.” I guess that makes it a French word.
    Thank you for this reference, AJP. I always wondered about they made the tight-fitting hose worn by men in many medieval paintings. The tightest ones must have been made by knitting.
    The Modern French word is le biais (the final -s is not sounded now but was in Old French).
    bobbin lace: my mother made bobbin lace too! It was not a family tradition, she started learning the craft after she retired, attended workshops, and later had some younger women as students. Bobbin lace (la dentelle aux fuseaux) is one of several types of lace which were made in France. Depending on one’s level of expertise, one can use only a few bobbins (to make a narrow band of lace) or dozens at a time. Bobbin lace is what the woman is making in Vermeer’s well-known painting “The lacemaker”.

  56. Interesting, the anterior etymology of bias is unknown. The OED says: “a. F. biais, in 14th c. ‘oblique, obliquity’, = Pr. biais (cf. OCat. biais, mod. biaise, biase; also Sardinian biasciu, It. s-biescio awry, in Piem. sbias); of unknown origin… Originally an adjective, as in Pr. via biayssa cross or oblique road; but early used as a n. in French, so that the first quotable example in Eng. is of the subst. use. The latter became a technical term at the game of bowls, whence come all the later uses of the word.”

  57. A.J.P. Crown says:

    It wasn’t a tradition in my family either. She just took up making it in her forties, because she was interested, at an evening class in London. Now she’s eighty-three and has masses of bobbins, I think they’re quite valuable.

  58. My mother learned the Danish counted cross stitch from someone Danish in the community. She’s also done the Norwegian bell pulls, rosemalling, and who knows what else. I’ve always admired the Hardanger they show at the Stoughton, Wisconsin summer festival

  59. People around here still do rosemalling.
    I’ve read that rosemalling had almost died out when German nationalists and hobbyists revived it in the XIXc.

  60. People around here still do rosemalling.
    I’ve read that rosemalling had almost died out when German nationalists and hobbyists revived it in the XIXc.

  61. “Norwegian”. They all look alike to me.

  62. “Norwegian”. They all look alike to me.

  63. marie-lucie says:

    I had never heard of “rosemalling”, or “rosemaling” as it is known on the web. Nothing to do with fabric crafts. The designs look familiar though, like the kind many people use for “tole painting”.

  64. The bell pulls I think of as “Norwegian” use courser thread, maybe wool, and the colors are similar to the rosemaling colors. All I care about is that the person who makes it signs it either with their initials and date stitched in, traditionally the lower right corner, or a waterproof label on the back.
    The rosemaling (I just spelled it phonetically, it’s pronounced like “mall”) designs are etched in stone from what I understand, no creativity allowed, and only certain colors can be used too.
    I have only once sewed anything on the bias, the sleeves of a Viking outfit, since long sleeves are often binding when you try to move in them. The fabric was a silk, something like raw silk, very thick but soft, and the end result was a very flexible but tight fitting sleeve. Very comfortable to wield either a sword or a drinking horn. More pictures of bias cut in my URL.

  65. Wonderful quote from the NYT article linked by AJP, very apt for this blog:
    Stout is a collector in the best sense of the word. Though he joked that he began acquiring books when he realized he’d never have a 401k, it is probably more accurate to say that Stout is in complete thrall of the smell of ink, the feel of paper, the intellectual and physical heft of the literary object, the near-indiscernible sound of the turning of pages.

  66. marie-lucie says:

    More on the full/whole nine yards
    Below is the comment from the earlier LH thread (thanks LH) which got me interested (bold and italics added):
    “I searched the Chicago Tribune historical archives and found earlier instances of the phrase “full nine yards” in reference to textiles, although I can’t determine whether the meaning is the same. In an ad dated January 24, 1897, the Boston Store on State Street offers “1,000 pieces Silk Stitched Whalebone Casing, warranted full nine yards” for 3 cents. And an ad dated January 13, 1901 for Mandel Brothers offers “Prussian binding–all silk–full nine yards” for 14 cents. Finally, a November 29, 1934 article about the marriage of Princess Marina and the Duke of Kent says about one outfit: “The skirts are circular, full nine yards around the floor line.” The latter is easier to explain as simply a measurement of that particular skirt, but the first two are harder to explain away.”
    Posted by: mike at July 5, 2007 06:29 PM
    The first two are “harder to explain away” for a man who is not familiar with sewing techniques and supplies (a tailor would probably not have any problem).
    whalebone casing: up to the first world war, most women in Europe and America wore corsets, reinforced with whalebone in order to make them stay up and rigid (there was no plastic then). Pieces of whalebone, about 1/4″ or 1/2″ wide, were hard and had to be enclosed in a casing of soft fabric before being sewn onto the corset. Casing, a long, thin cylinder of fabric (also used for other things) is a pain to make yourself, so ready-made casing is much easier to use, you just have to cut it in the right lengths, and that is what is being sold here, in nine yard long pieces.
    Prussian binding: I don’t know about “Prussian” (which could be a special type, or a brand name), but various types of binding tape are used to keep some cut edges of fabric from unraveling. Again, this is being sold in nine yard long strips.
    And here is my posting at the time:
    “I too had often read “the full nine yards” without knowing anything about the origin of this expression. Now, thanks to Mike, I would guess from those old ads that edgings, bindings or similar long and narrow specialized items of fabric were sold in a standard length of nine yards, and that some sellers were inclined to skimp on the length. At a time when skirts were extremely full, and dresses in general were often decorated with ribbons or other narrow bits of cloth stitched to the surface of the garment, one could easily use up at least one nine-yard roll or packet for a single dress, or even simply in going once around a particularly full skirt. A cheap product might not have “the full nine yards” and the seamstress would find herself unable to complete the garment without having to buy another nine yards of the same fabric. Besides the decorative stuff, a more sturdy type of edging was required for the bottom edge of a long skirt, which (reaching below the ankles) got a lot of wear and tear (even more than pant legs) so that the edging had to be frequently reinforced or replaced. Nowadays this sort of fabric product is still sold in small packages of a standard length, but much less than nine yards, which would be far too much for the average modern garment.”
    “The dress described at the 1934 wedding was not that same sort of 19th century full-skirted dress, but had a circular skirt – a type that you can lay fully opened, flat on the floor where it makes a perfect circle, with a hole in the middle for the waist. A skirt of this type, reaching the floor or at least the top of the shoes, is close to the body at the top but could easily measure nine yards at the bottom edge and thus be as wide as the fullest skirts of another generation.” [[update: this is the kind of skirt described by Nijma above, only longer]]
    Posted by: marie-lucie at July 5, 2007 10:58 PM
    And now in hindsight, and having found the remnants of an 8-meter (not quite 9 yds) roll of seam binding in my mother’s closet as described above, with the cardboard support and the lettering on it looking so old that she probably did not buy it herself but must have inherited it from her mother or maybe even grandmother, I think that my interpretation is probably closer to the original truth than the various imagined ones. The insistence on “the full nine yards” must have to do with the fact that some manufacturers (not necessarily unscrupulous ones as I thought, but those using European standards) gave less than the standard English or American size, apparently cheating the consumer by 4 inches (8 meters must have been the new standard in Europe after the adoption of the metric system, being the closest to the older 9 yards). Nine yards must have been a standard length for (homemade) textiles for a long time, witness the case of the woman who had been given 9 yards of linen to make a shirt (or 3 shirts) as reported in an anecdote from 1855 (see LH’s link above).
    As to the more recent quotations said to originate with the US Army (same link), it seems to me that the wide variety of origins suggested for such a recent phrase in that context means that the general, metaphorical meaning of the phrase was understood but that as it spread, no one in that all-male environment knew any more where it actually came from. The phrase might not have appeared in regular articles in the print media, but Mike’s quotations above did appear in print, in ads from fabric stores, and no doubt also in catalogues of sewing supplies, which men other than tailors would be unlikely to pay attention to but most women at that time would. So some men in the military had probably heard “the full nine yards” from the women in their families, where the phrase might have been extended to other things that just lengths of cloth or sewing tape (especially once the supplies in question were no longer sold in such lengths), and in the army some men went on to apply it in other contexts, where it spread contagiously, and the earlier “full” was more commonly replaced with “whole” as time went on.

  67. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Marie-Lucie, since you’ve done a good deal research and you are a linguist, you should really send this to someone who is recording the origin of the expression, e.g., the above-mentioned Gary Martin of phrases.org.uk.

  68. I’ve always assumed it meant the full load of a fair-sized dumptruck loaded with gravel, which is measures in (cubic) yards. The idea of dumping an entire load of gravel on someone is so satisfying to me that I’m unable to even consider any alternative explanation.
    The inventor of the dump truck, Gar Wood, grew up in Wobegon here. You still see GarWood garbage trucks now and then. He was also a champion boat racer and designer.

  69. I’ve always assumed it meant the full load of a fair-sized dumptruck loaded with gravel, which is measures in (cubic) yards. The idea of dumping an entire load of gravel on someone is so satisfying to me that I’m unable to even consider any alternative explanation.
    The inventor of the dump truck, Gar Wood, grew up in Wobegon here. You still see GarWood garbage trucks now and then. He was also a champion boat racer and designer.

  70. marie-lucie says:

    Is it customary to use just “yards” for “cubic yards”? And would “nine cubic yards” be a standard load? I am just asking as I am not familiar with the handling of those kinds of materials.

  71. I’ve always wondered exactly how much was “forty bricks short of a full load”.

  72. You definitely say “yards”. A pickup truck carries five yards, and a nine-yard dump truck would be only medium-sized. But that would be plenty to dump on someone’s head.
    As I said, though, the satisfyingness of the image is what decides me.
    Google finds “nine yard load”, “nine yard truck”, “nine yard dump truck”, “nine yards of sand”, “nine yard bed” (for the load area), and “nine yards of gravel”, but none of them in large numbers.

  73. You definitely say “yards”. A pickup truck carries five yards, and a nine-yard dump truck would be only medium-sized. But that would be plenty to dump on someone’s head.
    As I said, though, the satisfyingness of the image is what decides me.
    Google finds “nine yard load”, “nine yard truck”, “nine yard dump truck”, “nine yards of sand”, “nine yard bed” (for the load area), and “nine yards of gravel”, but none of them in large numbers.

  74. I once ordered a truck load of torpedo sand, I think it was about 30 yards, but I have probably forgotten by now. I can’t think of anything more boring to dump on anyone, even in a place like Lake Woebegone.

  75. A.J.P. Crown says:

    ‘They’ have ruled-out the nine cubic-yards of concrete derivation, because at the time of the first-cited example of the phrase (1960s) there was no truck that could carry nine cubic yards. Ergo it would not have been a reasonable or likely thing to have said in those days, let alone something that might have caught on as a saying.
    M-L 1, Concrete 0

  76. I still don’t believe that the textile use hid out from the nineteenth century until 1964, when it suddenly burst out into public use (apparently in the military, with nary a hint of its origin). It’s possible, of course, but to my mind extremely unlikely.

  77. marie-lucie says:

    It seems that “nine” something is common in measurements, but the phrase to be explained is “the full/whole nine yards”, which suggests that whatever was being measured often fell short of nine yards. That there are so many explanations for the phrase as apparently popularized by the US Army at such a recent date suggests that the phrase was not invented there, otherwise it would have an obvious explanation, and there is no context suggesting that the phrase was not understood.
    Thus far the only attested examples of “the full nine yards” in a self-explanatory, concrete (= real world) context are those which refer to long thin strips of textiles used in making clothing. I found a concrete object (a piece of cloth tape) which corresponded exactly to the description and use, fell just short of “the full nine yards”, and fitted the time period of the attested written examples (end of 19th century – beginning of 20th century).
    Unless somebody comes up with an alternate explanation which covers all the bases, as this one does, I will keep to my opinion that this must be the original meaning, forgotten in passing from an almost exclusively female sphere to an exclusively male one.

  78. marie-lucie says:

    LH, of course you are right when you say that the phrase cannot have completely “hid out” for decades. But the commenter, “mike”, found his references in in a newspaper, the first two in turn-of-the-century ads for sewing supplies, but the other one in 1934, in the description of a wedding dress, which must have been in a society page and written by a woman (and the sentence suggests that the phrase already had a wider meaning, though one connected with clothing construction).
    Sewing supplies, pertaining almost exclusively to the “woman’s sphere”, (and, in the case of these particular supplies, meant to be hidden on the underside of clothes) are not the kind of thing that are likely to be mentioned often in print. How often have you read about the kinds of materials hidden between the outer cloth and the lining of a man’s suit jacket or coat, or in the belt of a pair of pants? (sometimes you see them in deliberately unfinished jackets displayed in a tailor’s window, in order to show the materials and workmanship). But sewing supplies used in almost every household would have been mentioned by the women in any family, and the words heard by the men even though they were not paying particular attention. Another line of transmission could be through military tailors, who are not part of the army but make the uniforms, and especially for the top brass, no doubt fit them to the wearer or even make them from scratch. So I am arguing for oral transmission of a homely phrase, which became a metaphor even within its original sphere (the making of clothes, mostly by women) and spread into a different sphere altogether, without an understanding of where it came from.

  79. Dump Trucks”
    A standard dump truck is five yards. Maybe “the whole nine yards” was an ad slogan for the new nine-yard two-axle dump trucks.

  80. Dump Trucks”
    A standard dump truck is five yards. Maybe “the whole nine yards” was an ad slogan for the new nine-yard two-axle dump trucks.

  81. A.J.P. Crown says:

    It looks like a great book, Pete, but you can’t carry concrete round in dump trucks; it has to be very carefully taken care of and stirred all the time it’s in transit. That’s why God invented concrete mixers.

  82. marie-lucie says:

    Maybe “the whole nine yards” was an ad slogan for the new nine-yard two-axle dump truck.
    Possibly, but if the phrase was new, why “the”, not “a” which would emphasize how much bigger the new truck was?

  83. A.J.P. Crown says:

    M-L 3 Concrete 0

  84. I’m finding m-l’s explanation about garment construction more and more convincing.
    I have heard that during the time Tale of Genji was written, Japanese women had a separate “women’s language”. There is also supposed to be a “women’s pronunciation” of Arabic, supposedly of urban/Palestinian women. My Arabic tutor said this was true and tried to reproduce it–like “mai” instead of “maya” for water–but couldn’t even though his sisters were urban Palestinians. In the 40′s and 50′s I don’t think American men and women had much to do with each other. In the home at least we were completely separated and never had much of any conversations except at mealtimes, when it was frowned on to speak and chew at the same time.
    How often is it important whether seam binding or bias tape used to finish seams has nine yards or not? You’re not going to use that much material for most projects; it’s just going to be left over and you will buy a new packet with a different matching color for the next project. The only time it becomes an issue is with a dress for a special occasion that has a huge skirt. (Or if you are making a lot of garments all the same–like uniforms?) In the case of the skirt, when you were buying the materials for the project, it would be important to read the back of the pattern to see the finished edge of the garment and how much seam tape was necessary and compare it with the amount shown on the package you wanted to buy. This just isn’t a huge topic of conversation that was likely to go viral.
    I don’t know how often items manufactured in Europe would find their way over here, but in my hometown, British made needles were considered superior, the “Cruel” brand being longer and with an eye that was easier to thread than the American “Sharp” brand; maybe other European products found their way over too.

  85. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Not many things have ever found their way into the United States, thanks to protectionism.

  86. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, thank you.
    With respect to “nine yards”, reread my comments about how much more fabric women’s clothes required a century or more ago. In Little Women (or perhaps its sequel) one wealthy young woman buys 25 yards of material to make herself a dress! Also, as I discovered when making historical costumes, some of them with older material that was provided, some fabrics were much narrower than nowadays: the one I made my own dress with at the historic site was only about 2 feet wide, so the piece of fabric for the whole dress had to be much longer than what would be needed now for the same garment made with modern fabricsm for which the standard width is more than double this size. The skirt of my dress alone (which was not a fancy one) required 5 panels, and it took forever to hem the 10 feet around by hand.
    Nowadays you can get seam binding and other such materials in many colours, in order to match garment colours as exactly as possible, but that was not the case in the 19th century as fewer colours of cloth were available, and many women ended up wearing nothing but black after one or more deaths in the family. Similarly, nowadays you can buy thread in many different shades, and you buy only what you need to match whatever you are making, but if you are a professional or simply a prolific seamstress you will want to buy larger spools which will do for several garments, and those are only available in a few commonly used colours.
    So my guess is that seam binding, velvet ribbon (for decoration) and similar items were available in a standard length of nine yards, in basic colours: spools of these would always be of use for future projects. Obviously, some of these items did not always measure “the full nine yards” promised on the label. A European-sized length of 8 meters, like the piece I found, was short by 4 inches. For a woman with little money, or a rural woman who had ordered the material from far away, the missing 4 inches could indeed have been significant.

  87. Gravel, Kroon! Gravel!
    I don’t think American men and women had much to do with each other.
    Why should they have? I find that perfectly understandable.

  88. Gravel, Kroon! Gravel!
    I don’t think American men and women had much to do with each other.
    Why should they have? I find that perfectly understandable.

  89. I don’t think American men and women had much to do with each other.
    Why should they have? I find that perfectly understandable.

    Totally unnecessary. Men can be taught to do many things that can make them completely acceptable to women, for instance, using toilets instead of outdoor walls (then leaving the toilet seat down). And now that all our clothing is made by children in Chinese sweatshops who work 16 hours a day, there is no reason at all not to let men in the house and even upstairs on a full time basis.

  90. There is still one thing not explained. That is that the meaning of “the whole nine yards” seems to have changed from “a full measure” to something like “etc.” or “yadda, yadda, yadda”.

  91. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, that seems like a normal evolution from a phrase with a nebulous origin (to the present speakers) to indefinite reference to something even vaguer (that is called in linguistics semantic bleaching).

  92. Not many things have ever found their way into the United States, thanks to protectionism.
    Not really, “made in Japan” used to mean cheap, now it means quality–we have tons of Japanese electronics. Then “made in Hong Kong” was the new flimsy. Now it’s China. And we had Volkswagens from Germany and all kinds of cars from Japan and a few BMW’s for those who don’t mind grease spots on their driveways. British steel in razor blades. Danish bacon in cans. In the 1800′s there were German and French imported dolls, I think they had to start labeling for country of origin back about that time. The supermarkets are full of vegetables from Mexico–is that why we had the salmonella scare all summer? That’s just what I can think of off the top of my head.

  93. A.J.P. Croun says:

    What’s the connection between BMWs and grease spots?

  94. the connection between BMWs and grease spots
    No one here has confidence in British engineering. They think the British spend so much time learning Latin they don’t have any energy left to study engineering properly. That’s why America has the telephone, the car and the computer and England has Shakespeare. They say anyone who owns a BMW will always have it slowly leaking oil from somewhere.

  95. marie-lucie says:

    Since when are BMW’s made in Britain?

  96. It is a little-known fact that Munich was annexed by the British Empire in the chaos following WWI and never officially relinquished. The Germans go along with the charade to avoid embarrassment.

  97. Maybe it was a different car. GTO? I usually go by color.

  98. But thanks anyway Hat, that’s an obscure bit of history I hadn’t been aware of, and I will try to be more careful with cars in the future.
    Here’s the car; it was the MG that my high school BF was very enamored of:
    http://www.forbes.com/2002/05/27/0527feat_4.html
    and the reference:
    “Apparently MG now knows how to build cars that don’t leak oil, spontaneously combust or fill their cockpits with water every time it rains,”
    So the British cars had a worse reputation than I thought.

  99. A.J.P. Crone says:

    “Apparently MG now knows how to build cars that don’t leak oil, spontaneously combust or fill their cockpits with water every time it rains,”
    Do you know how they managed it? They sold the company to BMW.
    Wittgenstein studied engineering in Manchester, but that was a while ago (and he’s not really from Beyern).

  100. In Jordan the Arabs refer to a BMW as a “BM”. I tried to explain it to my tutor (who drove a Daewoo), and to my Palestinian BF (who had the usual Mercedes) but finally just gave up. It was really hard to keep a straight face though.

  101. But thanks anyway Hat, that’s an obscure bit of history I hadn’t been aware of
    You must occasionally use a pinch of salt with my oracular statements.

  102. A.J.P. Compost says:

    ‘BM’ being not British Museum in this instance, but baby momma? So… that would make ‘my Palestinian BF’… ?

  103. You must occasionally use a pinch of salt…
    Are you absolutely sure they weren’t following the ancient Dravidian boundary-lines?
    All kidding aside there are equally amazing claims that sound as far fetched. For instance if you travel to Israel, er, rather, the “other side” from Jordan via the King Hussein Bridge (known to the British as the Allenby Bridge), if you ask they will stamp a piece of paper instead of stamping your passport. You have to then return though the same point. The argument involved is that although Jordan and the other 5 Arab countries didn’t do too well in the war of 1967, Jordan has never given up its claim to the West Bank as part of its territory, so you are really traveling within Jordan when you cross the Jordan River. All countries involved go along with this polite fiction since any number of people don’t want an Israeli stamp on their passports. Some Arab countries will deny entrance to anyone who has visited Israel, as part of the “Israel does not exist” mental exercise. Jordan also has some sort of similar claim as protector of the mosque in Jerusalem that basically means, “if you cut a deal with the Palestinians over the mosque or beat the Palestinians in warfare, you still have to deal with us”. I suspect they still remember Jordan’s Arab Legion.

  104. BM.

  105. A.J.P. Chronic says:

    Good heavens, that’s disgusting, Nij. A bowel movement? What a horrible euphemistic expression.

  106. Horrible it may be, but I remember it well from my childhood. I wonder when and where it arose? Cassell says [1960s+], but I’m pretty sure it goes back to the ’50s (as do I). Their first definition is hilarious: “a visit to the lavatory.” What if you’re just going there to wash your hands?

  107. A.J. P. Chow says:

    A visit to the lavatory sounds fun. Perhaps we could have a picnic? BM is a terrible euphemism. The very idea that my bowels are moving makes me feel ill, which is quite the opposite point of euphemism, I’d have thought.

  108. marie-lucie says:

    What if you’re just going there to wash your hands?
    To “wash my hands”, like to “powder my nose”, are euphemisms too – say that and everyone will jump to conclusions as to what your real purpose is, even if truly all you need to do is wash your hands and/or powder your nose.

  109. It’s euphemisms all the way down!

  110. A.J. P. Car says:

    ‘Excuse me, I must just go and pick lint from between my toes.’

  111. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, we don’t need to know all the gory details.

  112. A.J. P. Cod says:

    No, you’re quite right. I wouldn’t dream of doing it really.

  113. These days I just say I’m going to go for a nature walk.

  114. bruessel says:

    “Wittgenstein studied engineering in Manchester, but that was a while ago (and he’s not really from Beyern)”
    or even from Bayern. Although I’ve just found this website called beyernwheels all about BMW custom wheels.

  115. A.J. P. Crown says:

    beyern wheels — designed exclusively for the bmw owner
    Though they’re actually kind of clunky for earrings.
    Ok so I kan’t spell. I admit it.

  116. John Cowan says:

    The whole nine yards has now been backdated to 1907, and the whole six yards is known to precede it. Wikipedia.

  117. It may go back to a joke that was popular in the late nineteenth century:

    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!”

  118. …And I see that joke was already mentioned earlier in the thread. What a tangle!

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