The whole nine yards
The whole nine yards is a phrase used to indicate "the full extent", or "the whole thing," as in, They took my wallet, my keys, my shoes, – the whole nine yards! Its origin is unknown and has been described as, "the most prominent etymological riddle of our time."
The earliest recorded example of this phrase dates from 1956. It is related to the expression "the whole six yards," used earlier in the rural South. Both phrases are variations on the whole ball of wax, first recorded in the 1880s. They are part of a family of expressions in which an odd-sounding item, such as enchillada, shooting match, or shebang, is substituted for "ball of wax." The choice of the number nine may be related the expression "to the nines" (to perfection).[nb 1]
The phrase was introduced to a national audience by Elaine Shepard in the Vietnam War novel The Doom Pussy (1967). Use of the phrase became widespread in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of the interest in the phrase's etymology can be attributed to New York Times language columnist William Safire, who wrote extensively on this question.
Early uses 
In early usage, the phrase was given as "the whole six yards." In 1912, a local newspaper in Kentucky asked readers to, "Just wait boys until the fix gets to a fever heat and they will tell the whole six yards." The six-yard form of the phrase also appears in a 1921 headline in a local South Carolina paper.
The earliest known published use of the phrase in its current form is from a 1956 issue of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, where it appears in an article on fishing. After describing the contests and prizes, the author writes, "So that's the whole nine-yards."[nb 2] It appeared in another article on fishing the following year, this time unhyphenated.
In a short story published in 1962, the phrase is attributed to "a brush salesman." A letter published in an auto magazine later that year describes a certain new car as containing "all nine yards of goodies". In 1964, several newspapers published a syndicated story which explained that, "Give 'em the whole nine yards" was NASA talk for an item-by-item report. This early usage can be read as suggesting length, but can also be read as suggesting detailed completeness.
Two 1965 newspaper articles quote U.S. military personnel serving in Vietnam using the phrase. The phrase was explained as something "teenagers say" in a military-oriented magazine in 1965. Citations from 1966 show the phrase was used by a former U.S. Army airman, and also in a publication for military test pilots. It is also recorded in two contemporary novels concerning the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam, Carl Krueger's Wings of a Tiger (1966), and Elaine Shepard's The Doom Pussy (1967).
There is no consensus on the origin, though many early published quotations are now available for study. A vast number of explanations for this phrase have been suggested. Perhaps the most common explanation is that World War II (1939–1945) aircraft machine gun belts were nine yards long. There are many versions of this explanation with variations regarding type of plane, nationality of gunner, and geographic area. Nine yards was not a standard length,[nb 3] and ammunition is normally measured in rounds, rarely in terms of physical belt length. Moreover, this explanation does not appear in print until 40 years after the war.
Another common explanation is that "nine yards" is a cubic measure and refers to the volume of a cement mixer. But cement mixers were much smaller in the 1960s and none of the early references relate to cement or even to construction. Other proposed sources include the volume of graves; the length of bridal veils, kilts, burial shrouds, bolts of cloth, or saris; a very long list; ritual disembowelment; shipyards; the structure of certain sailing vessels; and American football.
U.S. Navy Captain Richard A. Stratton in 2005 recalled that the phrase was the punchline of a dirty joke he had heard while attending flight school in Pensacola, Florida, in 1955.[nb 4] Yet little documentary evidence has surfaced to support any of these explanations.
William Safire, a language columnist at the New York Times, asked listeners for information regarding the origin of the phrase on Larry King's radio show in 1982. Safire ended up writing nine columns on this subject and is largely responsible for the interest in it. In 1986, the phrase was added to Oxford English Dictionary with the earliest citation given as 1970. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) cited Shepard's novel, thus pushing the earliest known usage back to 1967. In 2009-2012, amateur researchers combed various digital archives and came up with examples of earlier usage. Bonnie Taylor-Blake of North Carolina made the connection to the phrase "the whole six yards."
|Look up the whole nine yards in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- The phrase "to the nines" is first recorded in 1687. In early usage, it suggested that a work met the standards of the nine Muses of Greek mythology. Nine is considered a perfect number in numerology as it is three squared. Note that the phrase "cloud seven" was inflated to "cloud nine" by the same process. See The Phrase Finder and Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.
- The phrase, though relatively rare before 1956, was occasionally used in a literal sense before it acquired its figurative meaning: "You have to increase from 7.72 to 12 for the average at the bottom of that fifth column, for the whole nine yards." Testimony by Admiral Emory Scott Land, Investigation of the National Defense Program: Hearings Before a Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program (1942). In this case, the "nine yards" are the nine shipyards that produced the Liberty ship.
- The Browning machine guns on Britain's Spitfire had 350-round belts of .303 British ammunition which were about 5.7 yards long. U.S. aircraft generally used .50 BMG ammunition, which measured 0.929 inches center-to-center. So a nine-yard belt would have had 301 rounds. The Grumman F6F Hellcat had ammunition belts of up to 400-rounds (10.3 yards) while the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning had belts of up to 500-rounds (nearly 13 yards). Here is a picture of B-29 ammunition belts, and here is picture of a P-38's 900-pound load of .50 caliber ammunition, i.e. 2,700 rounds for four guns.
- The joke is told in detail here.
- Jennifer Schuessler (December 26, 2012). "The Whole Nine Yards About a Phrase’s Origin". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-12-29. "Then, in August, Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher in North Carolina who had been searching for variants of the phrase via Google News Archive and Google Books for five years, posted a message on the e-mail list of the American Dialect Society noting a 1956 occurrence in an outdoors magazine called Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, followed in September by a more startling twist: a 1921 headline from The Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina reading "The Whole Six Yards of It." ... 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. ..."
- Shapiro, Fred, "You can quote them", May/June 2009
- "The meaning and origin of the expression: The whole nine yards". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved November 21, 2012.
- Nunberg, Geoff, "The Whole Nine Yards' Of What?", NPR Fresh Air, January 14, 2013.
- Shepard, Elaine, The Doom Pussy, Trident Press, (1967), p. 54; "Slipping out of the knot [marriage] was expensive but Smash was eventually able to untangle what he called 'the whole nine yards.'" The phrase appears several times in the book, always as the pet usage of Major "Smash" Crandell, a U.S. Air Force navigator. At one point, Smash refers to, "the ninth yard" (finishing touch).
- "Livingston", Mount Vernon (Kentucky) Signal’‘, p. 1.
- "The Whole Six Yards of It," Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal, 7 May 1921, p. 5.
- Zimmer, Ben (3 August 2012). "Stretching Out 'The Whole Nine Yards'". Word Routes. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
- Rhody, Ron (July 1956). "Kentucky Afield Fishing Derbies Are Underway". Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground 12 (4): 18.
- See also "Plugs and Bugs" by Ferd Holtmann, Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, Vol. 18. No. 2, March, 1962, page 6. "Most anglers will tell you he has six or seven baits he uses more than all the others combined, yet he would be lost without the entire nine yards. It might be said there's a feeling of security involved in carrying the whole load on every outing."
- Wegner, Robert E., "Man on the Thresh-Hold," Michigan's Voices, Fall 1962. "...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."
- Linster, Gale F., "Constructive Criticism," Car Life Vol. 9, Issue 11 (December 1962), p. 2. "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."
- Trumbell, Stephen. "Talking Hip in the Space Age", Tucson (Arizona) Daily Citizen, April 25, 1964; "'Give 'em the whole nine yards' means an item-by-item report on any project.' (The reporter's name was misspelled in this newspaper; it is actually Trumbull.)
Zimmer, Benjamin (2007-06-21). "Great moments in antedating". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2008-11-11.
- Zimmer, Ben (25 March 2009). "Where Did We Get "The Whole Nine Yards"?". Word Routes. Visual Thesaurus. Retrieved 2009-05-20.
- Campbell, Frank D., Jr. Lt. Col, Daily Facts, (Redlands, CA), April 7, 1965, p. 6. "We got the whole nine yards, including a side trip to Panama for jungle survival." (Quote attributed to Maj Clyde B. Williams.)
Burris, Keith, "'Burners' Are Not Informed", Deseret News, 28 December 1965, (Salt Lake City, UT), p. A11, col. 1; "Capt. Greer was on alert the night of the big Red raid on Piel Me. He said the Cong troops were extremely well outfitted with steel helmets, boots -- 'the whole nine yards of uniform.'"
- Andrus, Col. Burton C. Jr, Assembly [magazine], Association of Graduates, United States Military Academy, v. 23 n. 3 col. 3, Fall 1965, p. 53 (55 of 100 in pdf). "We have 60 of the 120 rooms reserved so far--why not take over "the whole 9 yards" as the teenagers say?"
- Guthrie, James M., "Sesquicentennial Scrapbook", National Road Traveler, [Cambridge City, Indiana], 30 June 1966, p. 3; "If you like "The Old Swimmin' Hole," "Raggedy Man" and "When the Frost is on the Pumpkin" you'll like this one. And J.W. Riley is only a small contributor. (But Riley would have loved the whole nine yards)." For Guthrie's biographical information, see here.
- Technical Review, The Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Vol. 8, No. 2, p. 176 (September 1966) "Then two-engines, two pilots, and the rest, the nine yards of things that we have really all been aware of for a long time and should pay a lot more attention to."
- Krueger, Carl, Wings of the Tiger: A novel (1966); "'Okay, Tiger,' it said. 'Give 'em the whole nine yards. Now!'" [An instruction to fire at the enemy], p. 39. "We'll go over it after de-briefing. Get me a list of all pilots and planes available. Everything. The whole nine yards." p. 57.
- Wilton, Dave, "whole nine yards, the", June 21, 2007.
- "The whole 'whole nine yards' enchilada", The Phrase Finder. An amusing chart is included which shows which explanations are most common.
- Kilpatrick, James, "What's the Origin of the 'the Whole Nine Yards?'", Feb. 12, 1984.
- Wilton, David. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-517284-1, p. 36. William Safire and James Kirkpatrick have both given the cement mixer explanation.
- Wilton, p. 36. A 4½ cubic yard mixer was "definitely the standard of the industry" in the early 1960s, according to an article in the magazine Ready Mixed Concrete.
- Wilton, p. 37. A grave is about 4 cubic yards.
- Wilton p. 36. A bolt of cloth is 20 to 25 yards.
- Wilton, p. 37. There was no standard number of yards on a sailboat, nor any citations of this phrase from the sailboat era.
- Popik, Barry, "Communication from Richard Stratton", Whole Nine Yards, (May 14, 2005).
- Wilton, pp. 34–38.
- See second entry for "whole", section D, The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989. Oxford University Press. The entry cites the magazine Word Watching.