Question about "the whole three yards" (1882)

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Sat May 17 07:14:11 UTC 2014

On Sat, May 17, 2014 at 12:39 AM, ADSGarson O'Toole
<adsgarsonotoole at> wrote:

> 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.

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

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

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

Ah, thank you, Garson!  This helps explain why the 1882 text was
structured as it was and I now withdraw my complaint that the set-up
was clunky.


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.


And now that your finds have prompted me to poke around again in some
databases of 19th-century American newspapers, I see that uses of "a
face a yard long" and "a smile/grin a yard long/wide" (and yards
greater than 1) were not uncommon, which is very good to know.

I'm probably predisposed to think this way, but the appearance of "--
the whole three yards" in the above still grabs my attention.  For me
there's still the suggestion that the phrase may have had some special
meaning for the writer (and presumably his readers) and that the
phrase, used as a punchline, was being applied to a theme of
some-number-of-yards-long faces (including three yards).  I'm willing
to concede, though, that whether it also had a stand-alone use as an
idiom is still uncertain.

-- Bonnie

The American Dialect Society -

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