the whole nine yards

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sat Jan 6 16:01:37 UTC 2001

I did a little Web-surching. My casual effort probably doesn't merit the
term "research", and my computer/desk chair has only short arms, so instead
of "armchair research" we can call it a "short-arm inspection".

Numerous Web pages refer to "nine yards"; most of them refer to the phrase
in question; but in the older material at Making of America, "whole nine
yards" presumably didn't exist yet. Several MoA items tend to suggest that
nine yards was considered ample fabric for a woman's dress; perhaps it was
a conventional quantity. I found mention of the procurement of nine yards
for a dress; I also found an instance of a woman's purchase of eight yards
for a dress (maybe a petite woman, or a summer dress).

If one searches the Cornell MoA site
( for the phrase "nine yards to
the dollar", one finds a humorous passage from 1870 which I take to imply
that this phrase was taken from an advertisement -- I speculate that the
idea was that a woman (or man?) could be clothed for one dollar [at
somebody's store or whatever]. I highly recommend perusal of this item,
which also has some classical scholarship of a high order. (^_^)

There are also references to specifically nine yards of cloth apparently
used in a sari, in a drapery for a (Christian) cross, in a sort of napkin
used by Moslems, etc. I had never (until my current inspection) heard of
any of these things.

I'd also never heard of the nine yards of cement, ammunition, etc., etc.,
which are cited in speculative etymology of the phrase in question. And I
don't find mention of any of these except in connection with "the WHOLE
nine yards".

Chapman's dictionary gives the phrase origin as 1960's military, and I
don't see anyone explicitly disputing this. This might favor the
"ammo-belt" theory, IF there really was a "nine-yard" conventional belt ...
it seems to me that the length need not have been exactly nine yards; it
would suffice that it was conventionally referred to as "nine yards".

However, I found one "nine-yard" conventionalism which I have actually
heard in my life (and which therefore I speculate some 1960's military
joker might have heard too): "nine yards" is sometimes given as the length
of the human intestine (or alimentary canal). I found this in MoA
(Michigan) and elsewhere. (Note that I do not assert that this is an
accurate or precise measurement or that it's used by gastroenterologists or
anatomists: it's not, AFAIK. It's only a conventional expression used by

My rude speculation develops as follows.

The "ammo-belt" proponents would (I guess) favor a phrase origin like: "I
got that Zero in my sights, and I gave him the whole nine yards!" Not
entirely unbelievable, but that's WW II, not the 1960's. A possible (still
military) development for the 1960's: "Did the sergeant complain about the
sorry state of your weapon at inspection?" "Yeah, he gave me the whole nine
yards!" (with the ammo-belt metaphor).

But suppose it was like this: "Did the sergeant give you any shit about
your weapon?" "Yeah, he gave me the whole nine yards!" Nine yards of
intestinal contents, or "all the shit"/"as much shit as possible." The
expression is very portable ("Wow, look at all this shit!" "Yep, they
ordered the whole nine yards.").

Just one more item to add to the long list ... if someone else hasn't
presented the speculation already.

-- Doug Wilson

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