the whole, how shall we say, nine yards

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Wed Sep 5 11:49:06 UTC 2012

Bonnie Taylor-Blake's important findings, 1956 whole nine-yards, 1957 whole nine yards, and 1962 entire nine yards may be worth further discussion. Any interest?

(And did the 1962 author, Ferd H., reply to inquiries, Bonnie? --Even though author memories contradict [and the 1956-7 author memory is described a tad differently by BT-B than by BZ], and though I doubt any football explanation anyway.)

For instance, these three add evidence that the phrase users, early on, were predominately male.  (Of course there are women hunters and fishers, but the majority of readers of magazines such as Field and Stream are probably male. So a pre-1956 use may be more likely there than in, say, Vogue? Or where might we look, not liniting to increasingly-unreliable google?) If that holds up, then explanations of the phrase involving, say, wedding dresses or saris, may be unlikely. (There is Elaine Shepard, but she--2 out of 3 times at least--was quoting "Smash.")

If, despite much searching, the 1855 joke is the only known pre-WW II use, the collocation was pretty rare before then.

In Nov. 1997 The Maven's Word of the Day, Jesse Sheidlower wrote: "(An unreliable book has claimed that it dates from the 1950s, which is itself not that implausible.)" What book is that? Is that book now worth a second look or was it just guessing, relying on vague memory?

More could be said about count and mass nouns. E.g. 1962 "six or seven baits" in contrast to "the entire nine yards," "the whole load." (Recall that the 1942 literal phrase use was, according to Laurence Horn and Clai Rice on this list, mass.)(Cf. full, entire filling in for whole.)

Evidence seems to have increases that linear measure yards are probably not the yards here, despite strong tendency to take that as first sense.

Concrete trucks and machine gun belts are now even less likely.

The 1964 syndicated newspaper article proffered definition may not (rather, does not) apply to all earlier uses.

The dating claim involving Ralph Boston's 1961 long jump appears to be "non operational."

The 1959 "Nine Yard Ericson" USAF use may have had double meaning (he went all-out to get near the bulls-eye?).

The list proposed explanation is not helped by these 1956, 1957, and 1962 uses, IMO.

Getting closer to WW II.

Does anyone take seriously now the proposed Scottish joke (recalled 50 years later)?

Ben Zimmer seems more confident that the phrase origin will be found than Arnold Zwicky. A few merely tentative early dates for the whole x:
1799 the whole kit of Irish patriots

1833 the whool boodle [OED]

1838 the whole jing-bang

1842 the whole kit and kin [GB-UK]

a1848 the whole caboodle [OED]

1849 the whole kit and boodle [LC]

1859 the whole boodle [LC]

1870 whole shebang [MQ]

1882 whole ball of wax [MQ]

1888 whole shooting match [US]

1898 the whole kaboodle [LC]

1954 the whole megillah [GN?]

1955 the whole rigmarole [OED. Times UK]

1956 the whole nine-yards

1957 the whole enchilada [in Hollywood use, like megillah, and a play off that?]

Though I doubt it began as a Kentucky regionalism, I checked with the KY special collections library that has A glossary of argot in use at the USPHS hospital, Lexington, Kentucky, 1958. The phrase does not appear there.
The phrase appears to be not only an Americanism but, fairly early on, attested in many different states. Like, as it happened, the nine shipyards, sets of assembly lines that Henry J. Kaiser publicly campaigned to have converted to airplane production....

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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