In 1982, New York Times language columnist William Safire appeared on Larry King's radio show and asked the general public to help him solve what he’d later describe as “one of the great etymological mysteries of our time.” What were the yards in the phrase the whole nine yards originally measuring?
A Texas seamstress speculated that it could have been fabric. “If you had a fancy dress,” she said, “you must have used the whole nine yards of the bolt.” A Connecticut man wrote in to claim that it was actually cement, as some cement trucks carry a maximum of nine cubic yards. Fred Cassidy, founder of the Dictionary of American Regional English, had another idea. Yard was an old nautical term for a wooden rod connected to a sailing ship’s masts to support its sails. Square-rigged, three-masted ships had three yards each, said Cassidy, “so the ‘whole nine yards’ would mean the sails were fully set.”
Far from solving the mystery, Safire’s crowdsourcing campaign simply deepened it. Over the next few decades, professional and amateur linguists alike would trawl through newspaper archives and other databases to try to settle the debate surrounding the whole nine yards once and for all.
From Nine to Six
Four years after Safire’s 1982 plea, the Oxford English Dictionary printed a supplement dating the whole nine yards back to 1970. Jonathan E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, published in the mid-1990s, unearthed a slightly earlier citation: Elaine Shepard’s 1967 Vietnam War novel, The Doom Pussy.
As Yale Law librarian Fred R. Shapiro wrote in a 2009 article for the Yale Alumni Magazine, it seemed likely at the time that the phrase had originated in the Air Force. The Doom Pussy followed Air Force pilots, and other mentions of the whole nine yards from the era also involved that particular military branch. One theory held that the nine yards first referred to certain 27-foot-long ammunition belts used by Air Force pilots in World War II.
Then, in 2007, a recreational lexical investigator named Sam Clements discovered the phrase in a 1964 syndicated newspaper article on NASA jargon. “‘Give ’em the whole nine yards’ means an item-by-item report on any project,” Stephen Trumbull wrote. Linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out in 2009 that this didn’t necessarily debunk the military origin story: After all, NASA and the Air Force had close ties.
But it didn’t prove it, either—so the sleuths soldiered on. American Dialect Society member (and neuroscience researcher) Bonnie Taylor-Blake found citations in a 1962 Car Life article about “all nine yards of goodies” in the Chevrolet Impala sedan, and in the July 1956 and January 1957 issues of a magazine published by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. Taylor-Blake’s most notable contribution to the case occurred in September 2012, when she uncovered a 1921 newspaper headline that read “The Whole Six Yards of It.” The article below it was an inning-by-inning account of a baseball game, which didn’t mention anything about actual yards. A subsequent hunt for this older variant of the phrase turned up three mentions in Kentucky’s Mount Vernon Signal newspaper: two from 1912, found by Shapiro, and a third from 1916, which Taylor-Blake spotted.
The Whole Story
Since then, even earlier citations have shown up for both versions of the expression. The Oxford English Dictionary now dates the whole nine yards back to 1855; the whole six yards was in print at least as early as 1846. Never mind that the evidence has ruled out any relation to the Air Force or cement trucks. The switch from six yards to nine propagated a whole new theory: If the number could change, maybe it never actually was measuring anything.
As Shapiro told The New York Times, this type of “numerical phrase inflation” isn’t unheard of; before cloud nine, for instance, there was cloud seven. Moreover, yards aren’t the only thing we combine with the word whole to convey “all the way,” “everything,” or “pulling out all the stops.” There’s also the whole enchilada, the whole ball of wax, and the whole shebang, among others.
“The fact is that once you’ve said ‘the whole’ it doesn’t matter what words you finish it with or whether they mean anything or not,” linguist Geoff Nunberg said on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2013. “Still, it's hard to accept that it doesn't matter where the expression came from. Whether the measure is six yards or nine, it has a tantalizing specificity.”
That specificity has given rise to countless explanations involving just about any kind of yard: yards in a football down (which is really 10 yards), yards of cloth used for a Scottish kilt, and so forth. On his linguistics blog World Wide Words, etymologist Michael Quinion lists some of the more colorful theories that he’s come across, including “the size of a nun’s habit,” “the volume of a rich man’s grave,” and “how far you would have to sprint during a jail break to get from the cellblock to the outer wall.”
The creativity of these ideas—and the commitment to finding the phrase’s definitive backstory—suggests that we tend to have a tough time admitting that some questions might just not have an answer. So maybe the real mystery behind the whole nine yards is more of a psychological one than an etymological one.