[Ads-l] A recent revision to the OED's online "the whole nine yards" entry

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 12 19:43:11 UTC 2016

I've noticed that the OED has updated its entry for "the whole nine
yards" in the online edition.

Kudos to the editors for the December, 2015 revision.  It's great to
see those early 20th-century uses of the idiom.  The entry also
helpfully mentions, "Early examples are all from the same district on
the border of Indiana and Kentucky. A parallel expression, the whole
six yards, is occasionally attested in the early 20th cent."  (By the
way, all this is under the entry for "nine"; see A.3.e.)

Further, the entry includes, "Apparently originating in the frequently
repeated comic story cited in quot. 1855."

The OED's 1855 quotation [1], not unfamiliar to this group, is this:


[1855   New Albany (Indiana) Daily Ledger 30 Jan. 1/4   ‘The Judge's
Big Shirt’... What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just
enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the
whole nine yards into one shirt!]


(You can find the full text of "The Judge's Big Shirt" at [2], below.)

I'm curious about the OED's commitment to "Apparently originating in
[that] frequently repeated comic story," so I thought I'd throw the
anecdote back out there, even though (and forgive me) it's already
come up quite a bit here.

What do we know about "The Judge's Big Shirt"?

Here's something from the newspaper Spirit of the Age (Raleigh, North
Carolina; 6 June 1855, p. 2, column 5):


THE JUDGES BIG SHIRT. -- A story bearing the above caption, we find
floating about among our exchanges, sometimes without credit, and
sometimes with the paternity given to the Cleveland Dispatch.  The
story first appeared in the Spirit of the Age.  It was related to us
by a gentleman in Elizabeth City [North Carolina] last November; and
on our return home we wrote it out and published it in the Age.  The
parties said to have participated in the amusing incidents related,
are still living, and all but one are residents of this City


The last two sentences are noteworthy, I think, because they give that
the facts of the story, such as they may have been, took place some
time (perhaps a good while) before the writer was told the tale and
that by November 1854 the anecdote was known 140 miles, as the crow
flies, from Raleigh.

The first published version of "The Judge's Big Shirt" indeed seems to
have appeared in Spirit of the Age, printed on the front page of the 3
January 1855 issue (column 5).  I can't find any earlier appearances
of the same or of obviously related variants in any other publication.

Newspapers all over the country reprinted the story in 1855, so I
suppose "The Judge's Big Shirt" was in that year "frequently
repeated," as the OED notes.

But the number of times it appeared in print after 1855 must be quite
small; in the historical databases I thought to search I was never
able to find it published after 1855.  Nor have I been able to find
later versions that have even minor resemblances to the 1855 form.
That's not to say that "The Judge's Big Shirt" didn't circulate by
word of mouth before 1855 (we know it was told at least once, in late
1854) or after 1855, but it sure seems to have been pretty absent from
newspapers outside of that 1855 flurry.

I'll note, though, that in the spring of 1855 the anecdote was used in
a commentary on a court case, again in North Carolina:


In another column is the story of the Big Shirt, which we had suffered
to "pass," until the Albemarle suggested that Judge Saunders must have
had that shirt on, when the [sic] charged the Buncombe Grand Jury.
The idea is a capital one, bearing reason in its face.  That shirt his
Honor must have worn at Buncombe Court to protect his outer man
against the mountain winds; and with the voluptuous tail tucked in his
unwhisperables the Grand Jury supposed that he had his nether anatomy
fortified with numerous volumes of law, from which would be batched
out the most erudite opinions during the sitting; and hence the
presentment on which it was supposed the Know Nothings would be
exterminated root and branch. -- *Fay. Argus.*

[From "The Big Shirt," The Semi-Weekly Raleigh (North Carolina)
Register, 6 June 1855, p. 2, column 5.  This piece seems to have
originally appeared in The Fayetteville (North Carolina) Argus;
presumably "the Albemarle" was something published elsewhere in the
state or in neighboring states.]


A very minor point, for what it's worth.  In the above, the imagery
hangs on that big shirt; it's given (jokingly) that the big shirt --
the premise is that it was worn for protection -- may have been
mistaken for "numerous volumes of law," leading to "the most erudite
opinions."  On the other hand, in this commentary on Judge Saunders
there's no repetition or reinforcement of yardage of linen contained
in the shirt -- no "nine yards" that we see in the original anecdote
("The Judge's Big Shirt") -- that's at the core of the idiom.

Are there other examples of its incorporation or retelling?  What at
the moment other than its frequent reprinting in 1855 suggests that
"The Judge's Big Shirt" was especially influential?

I can hear Fred Shapiro and others wondering why I haven't mentioned
Richard Bucci's find in an 1850 Missouri newspaper of an interesting
figurative use of "nine yards" [3], so I'll mention it now, because
that discovery hints that a proto-idiomatic form of "the whole nine
yards" may have been in use in Missouri a few years before the
non-idiomatic "the whole nine yards" of "The Judge's Big Shirt" ever
appeared in print in North Carolina.  Was an oral form of the anecdote
so old that it made its way to Missouri before 1850?

I don't know if there's enough evidence for the idiom "apparently
originating" in "The Judge's Big Shirt."  Acknowledging the anecdote
in the entry is very important, but maybe the more speculative, but
still charitable "perhaps originating" would do better.

-- Bonnie

[1] The New Albany (Indiana) Daily Ledger citation (30 January) should
probably be replaced by a 3 January 1855 sighting from Raleigh, North

[2] "The Judge's Big Shirt," in full,


or http://tinyurl.com/jk63ffn

[3] Fred's April, 2015 announcement of Mr. Bucci's find:


or http://tinyurl.com/z2rz6vv

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

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