whole nine yards

Alice Faber faber at POP.HASKINS.YALE.EDU
Wed Jun 28 02:59:42 UTC 2000

At 9:21 PM -0500 6/27/2000, Herb Stahlke wrote, ostensibly about Re:
whole nine yards:
>I can't help you on the source for phrase origins, beyond suggesting
>the legal series that's been around for at least a century, Words
>and Phrases, but that will address only those that have been
>adjudicated and may not deal with origins.
>As to "the whole nine yards," the best explanation I've found is
>that the ammunition belts for a WWII Spitfire were nine yards long.
>If a pilot emptied his magazines in a dog fight, he had shot the
>whole nine yards.  I can't give you a source for this.
For some reason, this kind of word-and-phrase origin question pops up
on the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup with a fair degree of regularity
("rule of thumb" is another perennial). Most of the discussion
(which, despite being one of the few linguists participating, I tend
to skip over fairly quickly) consists in demonstrating that, in the
present instance, the use of the phrase is attested well prior to
WWII. (Of course, there's the countervailing trend that wants to
accept any just-so-story etymology profferred, no matter how
implausible.) From the afu faq:

>T. There is no good etymology for the phrase "The whole nine yards."
>T.Suggestions have included: Volume in a concrete mixer, coal truck,
>or a wealthy person's grave; amount of cloth in a man's custom-made
>(i.e., "bespoke") suit, sports games, funeral shroud, kilt, in a
>bolt of cloth, square area in a ship's sails, and volume in a
>soldier's pack. In the last year or so, the WWII fighter plane ammo
>belt theory has come back in vogue.

Here, "T" means "true beyond a reasonable doubt" and polarity
matters. This entry was probably written in the mid-90s.

Alice Faber                                       tel. (203) 865-6163
Haskins Laboratories                              fax  (203) 865-8963
270 Crown St           new improved email: faber at pop.haskins.yale.edu
New Haven, CT 06511    old email, if you must: faber at haskins.yale.edu

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