The Whole Nine Yards - Solved?

Sat Oct 15 02:29:35 UTC 2011

    A Wikipedia editor has found a remarkable use of "the whole nine yards," from a period much earlier than anyone had thought to look.  I have requested permission to share his or her identity.  The evidence itself, however, is in the public domain.

    The following story appears, via the Access Newspaper Archive, in the Democratic Standard, Janesville, Wisconsin (Mar. 14, 1855), p. 4; the Sauk County Standard, Baraboo, Wisconsin (Mar. 14, 1855), p. 1; The Agitator, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania (Mar. 29, 1855), p. 1; and the Newport Daily News, Newport, Rhode Island (June 19, 1855), p. 2.  Considering Access Newspaper Archive's limited coverage from this time period, it must have run in other newspapers as well.  I have not examined the different accounts on a word-for-word basis, but superficially they all appear to be the same.  If this is indeed the origin of the phrase, then it began as a humorous story, albeit one that may have been entirely forgotten by the time the phrase gained widespread popularity.  The following rendition of the story follows the version in the Sauk County Standard (if there is any difference among them).  I have put the phrase in all caps, although it appears in ordinary lower case in the original.  Otherwise I have tried to reproduce it as accurately as possible, typographical irregularities and all.

<<The Judge's Big Shirt.

    A story goes that on a certain occasion Judge A--------, then on a visit to Raleigh N.C. was notorious for leaving home without the necessary precaution of carrying along a second shirt.  While here he was invited to attend a gay and fashionable party, to be given at the residence of Judge B--------   The visiting Judge was terribly perplexed about a clean shirt for the occasion; and while revolving in his mind how he should possess himself of the desired article (in those days ready made shirts were not as now, articles of merchandise) when he was called on at his room by Mr. C--------, another limb of the law but not a Judge.  After passing the usual compliments, Judge A--------, remarked, "See here, C--------, I have just been invited to attend a party tomorrow night, and I have not a clean shirt for that occasion" hoping no doubt that his friend would proffer the loan of one of his.  But being a big of a wag, and relishing a good joke amazingly he concluded to have a little fun, and at the same time learn his friend a lesson concerning his negligent custom.  'Oh' said he 'there's no difficulty about that.  I can have you one made.'

    'But do you think it can be finished in time,' said Judge A--------

    'No doubt about it.  I have a shirt maker who is perfectly prompt and reliable, and I can vouch for it being ready.'

    "All right, then, if you'll be sure and attend to it."

    "You may depend on it," said the Judge's friend.  "It shall be here by half past six to.morrow evening."

    C-------- in going home that night, called at the lady's and ordered her to go to S------'s store and get nine yards of bleached domestic and three yards of linen, and make it for Judge A-------- and deliver it at his room at half past six precisely, and charging her particularly there was to be no disappointment, and not deliver sooner or later than half past six.

    "But Mr. C--------," expostulated the woman, "you mean three shirts don't you out of nine yards?"

    "Do as I tell you, madam.  Don't you suppose I know what size shirt is required by my friend!"

    Early next morning the cloth was procured and the making of the shirt entered upon.  About six oclock in the evening C-------- all attired and ready for the party, called on the Judge, when he was saluted on his entrance with--

    "See here, that shirt has not been seen yet."

    "Oh~" says C-------- pulling out his watch, "it is not time yet it lacks a quarter to the time, for I told her to have it here by half past six."

    The couple chatted away a while, when presently a timid knock at the door was heard.  Judge A-------- jumped to open it, when a little girl asked if that was Judge A--------s room?

    Being answered affirmatively, she continued "Here's a shirt, Mr. C-------- my mother made for you."

    "All right, my nice little Miss," and straightly began to prepare for donning the much coveted garment, remarking, "It is well made and handsomely done up too.--Smart woman that, Mr. C--------,'

    "Oh! yes, I knew she would not disappoint you in any respect."

    By this time the Judge had commenced pulling it over him.  He pulled and pulled as yard after yard passed, and his still head was enveloped in the shirt.  He complained of its size, but his friend told him that he had it twisted, but to hurry it on, 'twas time they were at the party.--Again we set himself to the task, and by hard struggling got through, finding himself enshrouded in a shirt five yards long and four yards broad, covering the floor with his simple drapery.

    "In God's name," said the Judge in astonishment, "what is this the woman has sent me?" looking with consternation upon the monstrous shirt around and beneath him.

    "What is it I say."

    It was with much difficulty that C-------- could restrain his laughter; but approaching his enshirted friend, and putting the huge collar down, so that he could see his face, he gazed with apparent wonder and observed:

    What a silly, stupid woman!  I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three she has put THE WHOLE NINE YARDS INTO ONE SHIRT.  But we must hurry up and make the best of a bad bargain, for it is high time we were at the party.  You can push it down into your trowsers, and nobody will be the wiser.'  So at it the Judge went his friend assisting him as yard after yards was piled away in his unmentionables; (they didn't wear tights in those day,) and thus he went to Judge B--------'s party if not the finest dressed, at least the largest shirted gentleman in the crowd.  C-------- promised never to "blow" on his judicial friend and kept his word, until he learned the Judge was compelled to tell it himself, for unfortunately he carried the big shirt home and Mrs. A-------- made some inquiries.  He had to out with it; and it being told by the Judge himself, Mr. C-------- felt at liberty to tell it also: which he does somtimes to the infinite merriment of all who hear him.">>

John  Baker

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list