[Ads-l] Major Discovery Relating to "Whole Nine Yards"

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Apr 27 22:27:54 UTC 2015

Fascinating news; thanks for sharing it, Fred.

Below is an example of "nine yards" used to reference a lengthy
textual document in 1902. This use seems to be comparable to the one
in the 1850 citation. The phrase is not in quotation marks. It seems
to be comical.

Date: May 7, 1902
Newspaper: The Atlanta Constitution
Newspaper Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Article: (Untitled short news item)
Quote Page 6, Column 4
Database: Newspapers.com

[Begin excerpt]
The International Magazine of Bill-
ville has out a prospectus nine yards
long. The editor says the first number
of the magazine "will be a gem." He
is a trifle short on copy just now, as
the favorable crop season has con-
strained him to make hay while the sun
[End excerpt]

This 1902 date is closer to the emergence of "whole six yards" and
"whole nine yards", I think. It is very difficult to keep track of
this complex topic. Perhaps someone could create a comprehensive
article on this topic. If such an article exists I apologize for not
knowing about it. Is the Wikipedia treatment accurate and up to date?

Switching topics: Maybe Stephen or someone can create an article about
the evolution of the lies and statistics saying. Is the Wikipedia
treatment accurate and up to date?

Perhaps a piece could be place in Comments on Etymology or another
periodical? An electronic document with updates to record progress
would be nice.


On Mon, Apr 27, 2015 at 5:11 PM, Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at yale.edu> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Shapiro, Fred" <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Major Discovery Relating to "Whole Nine Yards"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> The phrase "the whole nine yards," which only a few years ago seemed to be =
> a product of Vietnam-era military slang, continues to confound our ideas ab=
> out its modernity.  I am writing this posting to report on what appears to =
> be a major discovery about the idiom underlying "whole nine yards."  The di=
> scovery was made, not by me, but by Richard Bucci of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is=
>  an editor for the Mark Twain Project at University of California, Berkeley=
> .
> What Mr. Bucci has found is a newspaper item in the Bowling Green (Missouri=
> ) Democratic Banner, December 4, 1850, page 1.  The item is an article or l=
> etter entitled "Third Epistle to Edwin" and written by W. K. Kennedy.  Kenn=
> edy was Treasurer of the city of Louisiana, Missouri; "Edwin" was Edwin Dra=
> per, a member of the Board of Council of that city.  Kennedy was having an =
> intense feud with Draper and was responding to a communication by Draper da=
> ted Sept. 20.  Kennedy's Dec. 4 epistle contained the following key passage=
> s:
> SIR, -- Your last "nine yards" would be unworthy of notice, as it commences=
>  with a falsehood and ends with a lie, was it not that you therein wish to =
> create the impression on those that are unacquainted with the circumstances=
> , that I had endeavored (had it not been for your shrewdness) to swindle th=
> e treasury out of a portion of the revenue. ... I will not attempt to follo=
> w you through your "nine yards" in all its serpentine windings, but confine=
>  myself to one or two points more, and compare.
> "Nine yards" seems to be a term used by Kennedy to refer to a lengthy verba=
> l account.  This exactly matches the idiomatic usage of "whole nine yards" =
> and "whole six yards" in many of the earliest citations found by Bonnie Tay=
> lor-Blake and myself from Indiana, Kentucky, and South Carolina newspapers =
> in the 1907-1921 period.  The fact that Kennedy put the words in quotation =
> marks points to the term being a colorful coinage or recent addition to the=
>  language.  I think it likely that this is a surprisingly early precursor o=
> f "the whole nine yards."  The theory of myself and Ms. Taylor-Blake that "=
> whole six yards" may have been the original form, covered in the New York T=
> imes on Dec. 29, 2012, now seems questionable.
> Even if Kennedy's "nine yards" is the same idiom as the later "whole nine y=
> ards," it does not resolve the question of whether the term derived from ni=
> ne yards being a standard length of cloth.  Mr. Bucci believes that "The or=
> igins of 'the whole nine yards,' meaning a standard measure of cloth, appea=
> rs to arise from the amount of cloth that could be woven in a day by a sing=
> le person on a primitive hand-loom."  In my own view, there is no strong ev=
> idence for that theory or similar cloth-related derivations (although cloth=
>  theories are now far more plausible than the ever-popular concrete-truck-c=
> apacity and World-War-II-aircraft-machine-gun-ammunition-belt theories).  A=
> s I have written before, "Perhaps the reference was never a specific length=
>  of a specific thing, but only a colorful locution vaguely signifying somet=
> hing very long."
> Bonnie Taylor-Blake has been the trailblazer of "whole nine yards" scholars=
> hip, and I hope that she will post her own analyses of the new discovery.
> Fred Shapiro
> Editor
> YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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