[Ads-l] "Nine Yards" 1850 - Richard Bucci's

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Fri Oct 16 18:21:19 UTC 2015

My name is Peter Reitan.  I wrote a piece on the history of "nine
yards," as a common length of commercially available cloth, that appeared in the February 2015 issue of Comments on Etymology.
(A version of the article is on my blog: http://esnpc.blogspot.com/2015/02/nine-yards-to-dollar-history-and.html)


I read the ADS-L posts about Richard Bucci's discovery of the 1850
attestation of "Nine Yards" (Third Epistle to Edwin) with interest
and summed up my thoughts in a post on my blog: http://esnpc.blogspot.com/2015/08/nine-yards-cut-from-whole-cloth-or-too.html


Gerald Cohen cited both of my pieces in his summary of ADS-L responses to
Bucci's finding in the most recent issue of COE.


My initial take upon reading the 1850 "nine yards" usage was that
it referred (perhaps) to a lie, "cut from whole cloth."  If
"nine yards" were understood as a reference to cloth, "nine
yards" might be a sly allusion to a lie, "cut from whole cloth,"
which was a common expression at the time.  

"Nine yards" was
used idiomatically at the time to refer to a length of cloth, and by extension
to a woman who wears nine yards of calico (usually, but sometimes
delaine).  Several examples of such use are listed in my
nine-yards-cut-from-whole-cloth post.  For example:

DeLaine and Love. – The local of the Albany Transcript states that no man
under thirty-five can sit beside nine
yards of delaine [italics added] without becoming afflicted with the
palpitation of the heart.  The Ohio Union (Ashland, Ohio), May 25,
1853, page 4.

My position was also based, in part, on the lack of any other idiomatic
use of yards-long lengths of letters, poems, prayers, or speeches; the
earliest such use I could find were all from after 1870 - more than twenty
years after the 1850 use of "nine yards."  But the October issue
of COE included a couple pre-1850 use of petitions "(so-many) yards
long"; so I thought perhaps I had been too hasty in believing that undue
lengths were not referred to, idiomatically, by lengths of yards prior to 1870.


So I took a look.  What I found, however, was that the pre-1870 uses of
a "petition" being "(so-many) yards long" do not refer to
the length of the text or argument contained in the petition; they referred to
wide, popular support.  (I have added an update at the bottom of my post with my thoughts on the matter)

In nearly every case, the petition was
expressly due to the large number of signature; not to the undue length of the
text.  In other cases, the emphasis on wide support seemed implied (petition signed by citizens of Philadelphia or Baltimore mechanics).  I could not find
any pre-1870 instance of a yards-long petition being long because the text was
too long.  


Of course, that's not to say that the 1850 reference was NOT a reference to
the length of Edwin's letter - but if it was, the references to yards-long
petitions do not seem to corroborate similar usage during the period.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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