The whole nine yards (1907 - 1916)

Fri Sep 6 22:14:35 UTC 2013

For convenience I'm going to put all of these citations together in this thread, then offer my comments.

The 1908, 1912, and 1914 citations are in the message from Bonnie below.  The 1907 citation, from Bonnie's other message, is:

This afternoon at 2:30 will be called one of the baseball games that
will be worth going a long way to see.  The regular nine is going to
play the business men as many innings as they can, but we can not
promise the full nine yards.  [From "Baseball," The Mitchell
Commercial (Lawrence County, Indiana), 2 May 1907, p. 2]

Here is the 1916 citation.  Greensburg is also in southern Indiana, but about 90 miles from Mitchell:

The first of the new barrel skirts arrived in Greensburg yesterday afternoon--not the country-town imitation of the Broadway article, but a real for-sure one, wiring, hoops and the whole, nine yards cooperage produce. . . .
. . . It might be observed that none of the nine yards of goods used in the make up were wasted in length.  [From "First Real Barrel Skirt Appears on the Streets Here," The Weekly Democrat (Greensburg, Decatur County, Indiana), 23 March 1916, p. 5]

1.  This certainly throws into a cocked hat the picture that seemed to be emerging.  It had appeared that the phrase started as "the whole six yards" and became "the whole nine yards" through phrase inflation.  Early uses tended to be along the lines of "give him (or tell him) the whole six yards," suggesting the origin could lie in newspaper column inches, of which either six yards or nine yards would be a very large amount.  Now it looks like "whole nine yards" is actually earlier, and the 1907 use above is clearly the modern sense of wholeness, rather than suggesting a long story or a lot of information.

2.  The 1916 use above seems to be the best concrete link to date between a clearly modern use of the phrase (as opposed to a coincidental collocation) and a specific nonmetaphorical meaning:  "nine yards of goods" used to construct a barrel skirt and "the whole, nine yards" full-blown article.

3.  What to make of "whole six yards"?  It may be significant that articles of clothing were sometimes referred to as being a "full six yards."  This is a literal meaning not directly connected with our phrase, but might it have something to do with the origin?  Here is a typical example:

Silk Shirt Waist Suits.  The waist, yoke and sleeves of one of our new styles is elaborately shirred and has a flounce skirt full six yards round; another style comes with blazer jacket with puff sleeves and cuff finished with a multitude of tiny tucks.  [Advertisement, The Decatur (ill.) Daily Review, 28 Feb. 1905, p. 5]

4.  Remember the joke about the whole nine yards?  I won't go through the whole thing, but it includes the line "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!"  While the story was popular in the 1850s, I see it being repeated in a Madison, Indiana newspaper in 1885--recent enough that it could still be remembered in 1907.  Madison, of course, is also in southern Indiana.  ["The Judge's Big Shirt," Madison (Ind.) Dollar Weekly Courier, 31 Jan. 1885, p. 4]

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Bonnie Taylor-Blake
Sent: Friday, September 06, 2013 3:23 PM
Subject: The whole nine yards (1908, 1912, 1914)

All via  By the way, Mitchell is (still) a small
town in south central Indiana.

-- Bonnie


Roscoe Edwards and wife returned Wednesday evening of last week from
Saltillo where they had been visiting Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Cook.  While
there Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse
to stand while he unloads.  He will catch some unsuspecting individual
some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.  [From The
Mitchell Commercial (Lawrence County Indiana), 4 June 1908, p. 3.]

The above would indicate that bull moosers are trying to pave the way
for "Teddy" to hang on forever, should they succeed in landing him
this time.  Might as well take the whole nine yards while you're at
it.  If Roosevelt gets in move to make it permanent.  [From The
Mitchell Commercial, 10 October 1912, p. 2.]

Tired and disgusted the lady returned and while resting a moment a
little girl came in and inquired if they should keep the basket too.
The girl stated she called for the premiums and finding no one she
looked in the basket and knew the goods belonged to her mama, so she
took them.  This settled the whole nine yards.  [From "Story of a
Green Basket," The Mitchell Commercial, 26 November 1914, p. 1.]

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