The origin of the phrase the whole nine yards (meaning ‘the whole thing’) has been endlessly disputed (you can get a summary of the leading theories at For a long time the earliest citation was from a 1967 book about Air Force pilots serving in Vietnam; now Sam Clements has turned up a use in an April 25, 1964 article in the Tucson Daily Citizen about slang in the US space program: “‘Give ‘em the whole nine yards’ means an item-by-item report on any project.” See Benjamin Zimmer’s Language Log post for more context and links. You never know what you’ll turn up reading old newspapers!

Update (2018). This issue has basically been resolved, and all the theories are wrong; see this post.


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  2. “‘Give ‘em the whole nine yards’ means an item-by-item report on any project.”
    I first heard this expression in the Army, and in fact I have not heard it anywhere else. It makes sense that this would refer to a long list of items; the Air Force is notorious for page after page after page-long checklists.
    Care to take a crack at “Every swingin’ Richard’?

  3. Language Log says the NASA-related citation lends credence to an Air Force origin. But then, “motorman’s friend”, while adopted by the space agency, has an origin among drivers of trucks, buses, trolleys and trains. So it is entirely possible, still, that “the whole nine yards” has a non-military origin.

  4. Try this:
    Via Google Books, there are other citations 1964 or before:
    It’s got two dates on it, “Published 1957” but also “Symposium issue 1964”, for a “Technical Review – The Society of Experimental Test Pilots”. Maybe it’s a 1964 issue of a journal launched 1957.
    From the “snippet view”, another 1964 or earlier citation: “This program was unique in a couple of ways. Number one, it was the one and only military spin evaluation of the TF41 engine and, number two, it was the only spin evaluation of an asymmetrically loaded A-7. These results are going into a common report when then the whole nine yards gets wrapped up.”
    A report on Air Force chaplains, published 1961.
    Snippet view comes up with something different, but the search page listing content sample says: “his choir was composed of “the atheist, the Jew, Baptists, Catholics, and
    Protestants, Christian Scientists, the Mormon—we had the whole nine yards. …”
    From Congressional testimony in 1961: “[Question from a Senator] :”Oh, gee, I am going to spend $40 million. What are you going to spend it on? Parts? Administration? Computers? What? SHRIBER: The whole nine yards. The $40 million a day is the value of the administrative leadtime requirement for the four million items that we manage in the De- …” [end of snippet]
    The first link above yields more quotes in Congressional testimony among the results, including testimony in 1960 or 1961 (date ambiguity) about District of Columbia appropriations: ” How many employees does the Board have—clerks, secretaries, the whole nine yards?” That’s a U.S. Congressman using the phrases in 1960 or 1961 in a non-military context (but we should see if that Congressman came out of the military). Also at a defense committee, 1961: “We will give you the whole nine yards if you want it. Mr. Chairman.”
    The GB search is for any citation before 1970, so right now that datebase would seem to indicate normal conversational use in 1960; military use possibly as early as 1957, if the No. 1 item above is from that time.

  5. I neglected to include:
    Plains Anthropologist, a journal, 1954: “After all, many institutions who order therefrom cannot afford the whole nine yards, or in this case, the whole nine stages. So initially this condensation was made from practical economic reasons and not for research purposes.”
    Also, results include citations from 1908, 1916, 1935 and 1887, but “No Preview Available”. Somebody needs to go look those up, most of them are in the U. Michigan library. And the American Dialect Society first asks the question about “whole nine yards” in 1969.

  6. All the ones before 1954 look like Google Books using the date for the beginning of a series on an issue from much later.
    You can sometimes find a better date by searching the book for things like “copyright”. For example, the 1935 one (The New Leader) looks to say 1995 on one of the snippets that shows.

  7. Oh, and I’m afraid the 1954 link you give shows citations from 1991 in that very snippet, so it’s the same phenomenon. It’s Copyright 1991 itself.

  8. MMcM, indeed, I think you’re right. Searching within the 1961 Congressional items yields some snippets with later dates also.
    The Shriber testimony was apparently in 1986.
    So, sorry about that. A lesson in the shortcomings of GBooks.

  9. Yes, I’ve become quite disillusioned with Google Books lately. The snippet view and their cavalier attitude toward dating make a dispiriting combination.

  10. Terry Collmann says

    “quite disillusioned” LH? That’s very mild … personally I find it frequently carpet-chewingly frustrating. It has a long list of problems that regular users will be well aware of. However – occasionally it turns up absolute gems that one would simply never find any other way, and if they ever sort the “snippet view” problem (? a micropayment system to copyright holders?) it will be fantastic.
    Now – how about the ludicrous charges for JSTOR …

  11. Owlmirror says

    Something I’ve been wondering about on the topic:
    I’ve also seen the phrase “full nine yards”.
    Would this be considered something distinct, or just a minor variant of “whole nine yards”? Is it known which phrase is earlier?

  12. 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.

  13. marie-lucie says

    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.

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