Question about "the whole three yards" (1882)

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat May 17 04:39:59 UTC 2014

Bonnie: The following citations involving long faces and smiles might
be relevant though the word "whole" was not present.

Henry James used the expression "a face three yards long" in an 1883
volume that reprinted some of his pieces from magazines and journals.
So this instance may have been published before 1882. I have not
traced the original appearance.

Title: Portraits of Places
Author: Henry James
Year: 1883
Quote Page: 65

[Begin excerpt]
I had really been enjoying the good old city of Florence; but I now
learned from Mr. Ruskin that this was a scandalous waste of charity. I
should have gone about with an imprecation on my lips, I should have
worn a face three yards long. I had taken great pleasure in certain
frescoes by Ghirlandaio, in the choir of that very church; but it
appeared from one of the little books that these frescoes were as
[End excerpt]

In 1897 an Oklahoma newspaper article mentioned a facial feature with
an exaggerated measurement specified in yards, i.e., a smile "three
yards long".

Newspaper: The Hennessey Kicker
Date: January 16, 1897
Article: The County Capital
Quote Page 1, Column 3
Newspaper Location: Hennessey, Oklahoma

[Begin excerpt]
This made us feel awful bad, and if it had not been for the timely
appearance of ex-Judge Raymaker, with a smile on his face three yards
long we don't know what would havebecome of this poor editor.
[End excerpt]

In 1903 another instance of  "a smile three yards long" appeared.

Newspaper: Atlanta Constitution
Date: April 28, 1903
Article: Diamond Chips
Quote Page 12, Column 4
Newspaper Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Database: NewspaperArchive

[Begin excerpt]
Manager "Whistler is wearing a smile three yards long this morning. He
was greatly pleased at the result yesterday. But that's not strange.
[End excerpt]

In 1921 another instance of a "face three yards long" appeared in a
magazine article.

Periodical: The Windsor Magazine
Date: June 1921
Section: The Editor's Scrap-Book
Article: A Matter of Principle
Author: H. F. Frampton
Volume: 54
Quote Page: 102

[Begin excerpt]
How can you help noticing a fellow who jumps sixteen feet when you
speak to him, and goes about with a face three yards long? What's he
waiting to be arrested for? That's what I want to know."
[End excerpt]


On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 9:12 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:      Re: Question about "the whole three yards" (1882)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 1:23 PM, Jonathan Lighter
> <wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
>> This inclines me to agree that "the whole three yards" may well have been a
>> predecessor of "the whole nine yards."
> Thanks, Jon, for this and for the rest of your reply.  I'm now more
> encouraged to think that this instance of "the whole three yards"
> probably reflects a then-known phrase/expression and perhaps further
> that this may have been used idiomatically.  Maybe in this particular
> case for, what, "the full treatment"?
> In any event, as these databases expand, perhaps we'll be able to
> increase the n and determine if this 1882 sighting is indeed related
> to later appearances of the larger idiom.
>> 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.
> If this "the whole three yards" holds up to scrutiny and we find other
> instances of its use, its cropping up in central North Carolina in
> 1882 allows us to connect "the whole six yards" in northwestern South
> Carolina (1921) to "the whole six yards" in east central Kentucky
> (1912), which links to "the full/whole nine yards" in southern Indiana
> (1907/1908).  At least this handful of sightings for the moment
> suggests a sweep across the upper South.
>> The next question is, of course, "Why 'three yards'?"
> Yeah, I really hate that question.
> -- Bonnie
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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