Question about "the whole three yards" (1882)

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 16 17:23:52 UTC 2014

Bonnie, this is great.

My initial reaction is that the writer indeed regards "the whole three
yards" as a recognizable phrase. Its precise meaning here is not clear.

What if he'd written "the whole nine yards" instead? I think we'd "know"
what he was getting at even if it would be hard (or impossible) to
paraphrase correctly. The presence, as you say, of "yards" may have been
all it took to plug in "the whole three yards" humorously with an ad hoc
meaning of "in fact, as long as is possible, and accompanied by other
unpleasant things."

"The whole nine yards" would have a comparable effect: not really clear,
but close enough to make some kind of sense. If "the whole three yards"
*wasn't* a figurative idiom, I can't imagine the point of the phrase.

This inclines me to agree that "the whole three yards" may well have been a
predecessor of "the whole nine yards."

Consider too that over time the number of yards may be more likely to
increase than decrease. (Consider "110%," "200%," "1000%.")  East Central
North Carolina, moreover, is at least arguably in the same general Midland
dialect area as Kentucky, where you found the earliest "nine yards" usage.

The next question is, of course, "Why 'three yards'?"


On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 12:40 PM, Bonnie Taylor-Blake <
b.taylorblake at> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Bonnie Taylor-Blake <b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Question about "the whole three yards" (1882)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Any ideas on what, if anything, "the whole three yards" may signify in
> the following bit of text from 1882?
> ---------------------------------------------------
> We advise our Liberal and Republican friends, who are candidates, to
> call on Frank the Barber and get shaved before the election.  After
> that time he will charge by the yard, and some of their faces will be
> very long -- the whole three yards.
> [From "Very Important!," The Orange County Observer (Hillsborough,
> North Carolina), 4 November 1882, p. 2, col. 2; via
> PDF at link far below.]
> ---------------------------------------------------
> I get that the writer is warning that non-Democrat candidates will
> soon be disappointed in the election outcome (hence, long faces) and I
> get that he has set up the image of a barber charging by the yard (of
> long faces), but what I can't really figure out is ending this short
> comment with " -- the whole three yards."  Because the writer has used
> "yard" a few words earlier, I'm assuming that "the whole three yards"
> is pretty much just a reiteration of some big length (something "very
> long"), but this makes me wonder whether there *is* a "something."
> After a couple days of cautiously thinking about this, I can see that
> " -- the whole three yards" may be suggestive of an idiomatic usage,
> perhaps in the way "the whole six/nine yards" (ca. 1910) was used to
> mean "everything" or "the full extent" or to signify thoroughness.
> Perhaps the writer already had the punchline in mind ("the whole three
> yards" = complete defeat?) and needed some way to get to it, coming up
> with a clunky metaphor involving shaving yards of long faces.  But,
> given that there's not much to go on, I admit I may be overreaching.
> -- Bonnie
> (That PDF will be purged after a week.)
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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