[Ads-l] Major Discovery Relating to "Whole Nine Yards"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Mon Apr 27 21:11:42 UTC 2015

The phrase "the whole nine yards," which only a few years ago seemed to be a product of Vietnam-era military slang, continues to confound our ideas about its modernity.  I am writing this posting to report on what appears to be a major discovery about the idiom underlying "whole nine yards."  The discovery was made, not by me, but by Richard Bucci of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is an editor for the Mark Twain Project at University of California, Berkeley.

What Mr. Bucci has found is a newspaper item in the Bowling Green (Missouri) Democratic Banner, December 4, 1850, page 1.  The item is an article or letter entitled "Third Epistle to Edwin" and written by W. K. Kennedy.  Kennedy was Treasurer of the city of Louisiana, Missouri; "Edwin" was Edwin Draper, a member of the Board of Council of that city.  Kennedy was having an intense feud with Draper and was responding to a communication by Draper dated Sept. 20.  Kennedy's Dec. 4 epistle contained the following key passages:

SIR, -- Your last "nine yards" would be unworthy of notice, as it commences with a falsehood and ends with a lie, was it not that you therein wish to create the impression on those that are unacquainted with the circumstances, that I had endeavored (had it not been for your shrewdness) to swindle the treasury out of a portion of the revenue. ... I will not attempt to follow you through your "nine yards" in all its serpentine windings, but confine myself to one or two points more, and compare.

"Nine yards" seems to be a term used by Kennedy to refer to a lengthy verbal account.  This exactly matches the idiomatic usage of "whole nine yards" and "whole six yards" in many of the earliest citations found by Bonnie Taylor-Blake and myself from Indiana, Kentucky, and South Carolina newspapers in the 1907-1921 period.  The fact that Kennedy put the words in quotation marks points to the term being a colorful coinage or recent addition to the language.  I think it likely that this is a surprisingly early precursor of "the whole nine yards."  The theory of myself and Ms. Taylor-Blake that "whole six yards" may have been the original form, covered in the New York Times on Dec. 29, 2012, now seems questionable.

Even if Kennedy's "nine yards" is the same idiom as the later "whole nine yards," it does not resolve the question of whether the term derived from nine yards being a standard length of cloth.  Mr. Bucci believes that "The origins of 'the whole nine yards,' meaning a standard measure of cloth, appears to arise from the amount of cloth that could be woven in a day by a single person on a primitive hand-loom."  In my own view, there is no strong evidence for that theory or similar cloth-related derivations (although cloth theories are now far more plausible than the ever-popular concrete-truck-capacity and World-War-II-aircraft-machine-gun-ammunition-belt theories).  As I have written before, "Perhaps the reference was never a specific length of a specific thing, but only a colorful locution vaguely signifying something very long."

Bonnie Taylor-Blake has been the trailblazer of "whole nine yards" scholarship, and I hope that she will post her own analyses of the new discovery.

Fred Shapiro
YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

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

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