A couple of years ago I posted about an antedating of “the whole nine yards” to April 25, 1964. Now Fred R. Shapiro, in a Yale Alumni Magazine column, after summarizing the history of what he calls “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time,” reports on two further antedatings:

Your staff of testers cannot fairly and equitably appraise the Chevrolet Impala sedan, with all nine yards of goodies, against the Plymouth Savoy which has straight shift and none of the mechanical conveniences which are quite common now.
Car Life, December 1962
Then the dog would catch on and go ki-yi-yi-ing from one to the other of the shouting pyjama clad participants mad, mad, mad, the consequence of house, home, kids, respectability, status as a college professor and the whole nine yards, as a brush salesman who came by the house was fond of saying, the whole damn nine yards.
— Robert E. Wegner, “Man on the Thresh-Hold,” Michigan’s Voices: A Literary Quarterly Magazine, Fall 1962

Shapiro’s conclusion: “Their context does not relate to the military, nor to the realms of cloth, concrete, or football. They are sufficiently removed from World War II to raise serious doubts about how a term from that war could have attained currency in the 1960s yet left no trace of prior usage. We don’t yet have answers, but the questions are moving in new directions as the fog of speculation gives way to the light of fact.” The first reader response is from a guy who thinks the military explanation is correct because he read it in a Len Deighton book. As Shapiro begins by saying, “Etymology is the –ology that gets no respect.”
Addendum. Ben Zimmer has a fuller report, with actual images of the cited texts, here.
Update (2012). Bonnie Taylor-Blake has antedated it to the July 1956 issue of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, where Ron Rhody used it in hyphenated form (“So that’s the whole nine-yards”). Rhody used it again in the January 1957 issue, without a hyphen (“These guys go the whole nine yards — no halfway stuff for them”); remarkably, “he’s still around and even has a blog. Rhody told Taylor-Blake that he thought it was a common expression in Kentucky at the time but didn’t have any particular insights about its origins.” I quote from Ben Zimmer’s Visual Thesaurus column, where you will find more details (and an image of the 1956 occurrence).


  1. Too bad for Fred R. Shapiro that he didn’t talk to Marie-Lucie before he decided to come out in print with this revisionism. Like many of us, he could have avoided a lot of embarrassment by reading Language Hat with his cornflakes. So much for a Yale education.

  2. AJP, if you’re referring to M-L’s comment in the thread, that’s hardly definitive. It’s just an educated guess based on some old advertising that is not using “the full nine yards” in the same sense as the modern idiom, or at least not in a clear enough sense to be definitive. And does the textile reference explain why brush salesmen apparently commonly used the phrase in the 1950s?

  3. marie-lucie says

    I read the Shapiro article and he is not coming to any conclusion, revisionist or not.
    I am getting together more examples supporting my point of view but I said enough for now on earlier threads.

  4. marie-lucie says

    vanya, I first wrote in the thread indicated, but modified and added to those remarks later in the “I tie my hat” thread.
    The quotation does not say that “brush salesmen” in general used the phrase, only that one particular brush salesman did.

  5. Well it’s fiction so there’s no real evidence any brush salesman ever said it. All we can really say is that apparently the writer at the time thought it the kind of thing a brush salesman in 1960 might say.

  6. mollymooly says

    Ben Zimmer reckons cement trucks were too small in the 60s. Google Books gives me this snippet:

    Pacific reporter. second series (v.1-400) 1964 – Page 415
    On March 15, 1962, at about 6:30 pm, the plaintiff was driving his large cement truck carrying about nine yards of aggregate (about 2700 pounds per yard) in …

  7. Yes, I was thinking about m-l’s later expression of her “point of view”, which seemed to me to be convincing — and as a historical linguist she’s more aware of the pitfalls of making claims of attribution.

  8. How much is the yard used as a measure these days, at all?
    In NAm English It’s commonly used in football, and in sewing. Otherwise, I never run into anyone using yards instead of feet.

  9. scarabaeus says

    the whole nine yards would get thee transported to a new life.
    Charles Hopton , was Tryed for stealing 9 Yards of Mohair and Bengaul Silks, value 12 l. from Thomas Trimer

  10. My father used yards when estimating distances. He was a Marine and a hunter and used yards in both those milieus.

  11. It’s true, yards are very out of style. My daughter says ‘the whole twenty-seven feet’, but some of her friends have already switched over to ‘The whole 8,229.6 millemetres’. Here today, gone tomorrow — that’s how language works.

  12. I myself say “4.83 smoots.”

  13. Because “the whole 0.04 furlongs” doesn’t sound that impressive.

  14. If you think furlongs are unimpressive, try saying it in light years.

  15. Dan Murphy says

    Having just finished reading all 21+ novels of the late, great Patrick O’Brian about the Royal Navy during the Napleonic Wars, might there be a totally different usage of ‘yards’ involved here?
    Three masts (fore, main, mizzen) on a “ship-rigged” man-of-war, each carrying three square-rigged sails (main, top, top-gallant) was standard. Which means you had 9 yards (the cross-wise pole along the top of the sail) to hoist or brace around to make a major course change…
    Just a thought,

  16. marie-lucie says

    Dan: Do the 21+ novels in question ever use the phrase “the whole nine yards” or its apparently older version “the full nine yards” (rather than “all nine yards” or “all of the yards” which would seem more likely if the phrase refers to a number rather than a measurement)?

  17. scarabaeus says

    Google “ship nine yards sail” will lead you on a nice goose chase, unfortunately many a catch phrases spoken by under class never takes hold in the macadamia world for many an eon by the elitist that only deal in educated phrases that be said by another of the same acceptable world, until the phrase catches the imagination of an influential document.

  18. marie-lucie says

    scarabeus: I agree. “Underclass” here includes women until very recently (and not in all countries).

  19. I asked my father (who would be a contemporary of the initial usage), when or how he knew it originated. He happened to work in concrete for about 15 years, and indicated that 9 yards of concrete was the original standard which all cement mixers carried.
    He went on to say that the phrase “the whole nine yards” was a common defensive phrase — apparently fraud was rife in the industry. It’s very difficult, and impossible for a lay person to eyeball the volume of concrete after it’s been poured into variously shaped volumes. I couldn’t tell you what 8.2 cubic yards of concrete vs 9 cubic yards looks like (pre or post hardening), but you can bet back at the concrete plant someone was pretty interested in cutting costs 10%.

  20. The problem is that people’s memories are unreliable; origins can’t be accepted unless they’re pinned down with a contemporary written citation.

  21. marie-lucie says

    Matt, would your father know why concrete mixers commonly have or had a capacity of 9 cubic yards and not some other measurement?
    According to Wikipedia, the most common capacity is 6 cubic metres, which comes to 6×1.307951=7.847706 cubic yards. Here as with measures of length, the metric round figure comes to slightly less than the imperial figure, somewhat short of “the whole nine yards” (not necessarily because of deliberate fraud, but because of the difference in units of measurement when starting from a whole number).

  22. Sigivald says

    On a mostly irrelevant note, since I’m not a Visual Thesaurus subscriber and can’t post it there, the idea that during the Vietnam War every platoon had someone carrying a .50 caliber machinegun (ie, an M2 Browning) is ludicrous.
    The poster is presumably thinking of the M60, which is neither .50 caliber nor has 9 yard belts; a standard 200 round belt of 7.62x51mm ammunition on the appropriate type of links is about a yard and a quarter long.

  23. Dan: “all nine yards” referring to “full sail” is an interesting one, but a ship-rigged vessel had a lot more than nine sails – skysails, royals, staysails, spanker etc – so not sure about that.
    As for the Fighter reference, this book may shed some light:
    The whole nine yards : the story of an ANZAC P-40
    by King, John Richard
    It was published in 2002, but may contain clues.
    I would note that nine yards of bullets isn’t actually very much for a fighter to carry. As Sigivald notes, that comes to about 1200 rounds. (A 200 round belt is, I would say, more like a yard and a half). A Spitfire, with 8 machine guns, would carry 300 for each, for a total of 2400.
    So if that’s typical, you’re looking for an aircraft with 4 guns – something early, like a P-40, would be about right. Or possibly an aircraft with a four-gun mount, such as the rear turret of a Lancaster bomber.

  24. Once upon a time, Anno Domini 1659, there be two old codgers espousing about the good old days, about old ‘you’ Bows before using new fangled smelly smoky blunder busses in the Fox and Hounds in Much Binding in the Marsh, or was it the Dog and Duck, one be having a quiver, reminded the other about time they had won the Yard of Beer contest, “Yer I remember, you drank the whole nine yardes, then yer drowned the Jakes after wards too”.
    So a tradition was started drinking the whole nine yards of strong ale in nine gulps best done by the hooker.

  25. marie-lucie says

    ajay, I am not familiar with military equipment or its use (except in the most general sense), but if it takes belt lengths distributed among four or eight guns to make up the required “nine yards”, is the “yard” really the relevant unit of measurement in this case? wouldn’t that be the “round”?

  26. marie-lucie: well, quite…

  27. This “whole nine yards” thing seems a bit feeble to an outsider like me. Isn’t it possible to utilize computer technology to find the earliest written occurrence of a word or phrase? Can’t some linguistic authority figure (is there one?) ask google to harness their research department for 45 seconds? Can’t our own M or John Cowan look into it?

  28. Isn’t it possible to utilize computer technology to find the earliest written occurrence of a word or phrase?
    That’s what they’ve been doing. They keep turning up earlier occurrences. It’s not like everything ever written is in one huge text file for our convenience, you know.

  29. marie-lucie says

    If I am right in my guess (in previous posts), this phrase was not about something many people would write about, especially in print (eg there might be some manuscript sources such as letters, but the letters of ordinary people are not often preserved for posterity).

  30. It’s not like everything ever written is in one huge text file for our convenience, you know.
    The only point of computers is to do things for our convenience, that’s what they’re there for. They ought to work on that huge text file, it’s absurd and cruel that living people are forced to look things up by hand.

  31. If I am right in my guess (in previous posts), this phrase was not about something many people would write about, especially in print
    You ought to need just one early example that a computer could find.

  32. marie-lucie says

    Someone found two that put me on my track, but they were in newspaper ads, not articles, so apparently that did not count.

  33. Why on earth should that matter?

  34. scarabaeus says

    Marie-Lucie, you hit the nail on the head, low quality conversations, would not be recorded unless someone like Sheridan and Mrs Malaprop or a up scale reporter at the Casa Blanca put some rantings into the publick domain

Speak Your Mind