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

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 12 20:32:18 UTC 2016

The fifty-year gap between the anecdote and the idiomatic use of the phrase seems to suggest that the anecdote is apparently not the origin of the idiom.

The fact that the anecdote relates to cloth may, however, be one more in a long line of evidence that the "whole nine yards" (or "whole six yards") of the later idiomatic use may relate to lengths of fabric.  My piece in Comments on Etymology (January 2015) (you can see a version of that article on my blog - Nine Yards to the Dollar - the History and Etymology of the Whole Nine Yards) lays out numerous examples suggesting that nine yards (and other multiples of three) was a common length of cloth available at retail, and common length used for women's dresses and other items.  The nine yards of the Judge's shirt is one more example of nine yards being a standard length of cloth.

The "nine yards" of Richard Bucci's 1850 finding does not seem to relate to "whole nine yards" of cloth in the Judge's shirt anecdote.  One reading of that example is that it refers to a lengthy letter "nine yards" long.  Another possibility, consistent with "nine yards" being understood as a whole length of cloth, is that it referred to lies told in an earlier letter - "nine yards" - perhaps "cut from whole cloth".  Speculative perhaps, but consistent with other idiomatic use of "nine yards" at the time.  During the early 1850s, "nine yards of calico (or delaine)" was frequently used, metaphorically, to refer to a woman wearing a dress (presumably made of nine yards of cloth).  

Courting. – One of the most
delicate avocations that some young men have, is when they have made up their
mind that nine yards of calico
[italics added] is an essential and necessary requirement to their happiness
and comfort in this mundane sphere. 
While to others it is a second nature, born in the animal, and they
engage in the pleasing task as if by instinct. 
To them there is something in the idea of “speaking your mind” to a
female that causes an indescribable thrill of delightful anticipations.  So at least we are informed by different
persons, and “what is in every body’s mouth be true.”

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 21, 1853,
page 3.

Numerous examples on my blog, "Nine Yards" - Cut from Whole Cloth or Too Long?  The post also collects numerous examples of "so-many yards" used to describe the lengths of documents and letters.


> Date: Tue, 12 Jan 2016 14:43:11 -0500
> From: b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
> Subject: A recent revision to the OED's online "the whole nine yards" entry
> ---------------------- 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:      A recent revision to the OED's online "the whole nine yards"
>               entry
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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   =E2=80=98The Judge'=
> s
> Big Shirt=E2=80=99... 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
> [Raleigh].
> ------------------------------------
> 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
> Carolina.
> [2] "The Judge's Big Shirt," in full,
> http://idnc.library.illinois.edu/cgi-bin/illinois?a=3Dd&d=3DSJO18550414.2.2=
> 6
> or http://tinyurl.com/jk63ffn
> [3] Fred's April, 2015 announcement of Mr. Bucci's find:
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2015-April/136840.html
> or http://tinyurl.com/z2rz6vv
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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