[Ads-l] More Intriguing Early Citations Relating to "Whole Nine Yards"

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri Oct 2 12:04:32 UTC 2020

Quite intriguing, Fred.

I have previously suggested, more than once, we be open to non-sewing-cloth possibilities. I'm away from my notes, but here's one from my old posts:

Anyway, what do y'all make of it as
related, or not, to
"the whole nine yards"?

"Buck Campbell, the
more or less baseball expert of
The Winston-Salem Journal, took the
trouble to pen Left Hook a long letter,
in which he told all there was good
to tell about the Twin-City. Buck wrote
everything that was on his mind.--
Asheville Citizen.
You shouldn't be so hard on
ol'/the/our [?--uncertain letters]
Lefty. Remember there is a board of
censors here. that is the reason you
got the nine yards of blank paper."

Winston-Salem Journal 04-01-1917 page 10, col. 7.
America's Historical Newspapers

Stephen Goranson
From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU>
Sent: Friday, October 2, 2020 7:54 AM
Subject: More Intriguing Early Citations Relating to "Whole Nine Yards"

Here's another interesting early citation, an actual British occurrence and a "non-multiple of 3" occurrence:

1857 _Nottinghamshire Guardian_ 18 June 3/5 (Newspapers.com)

A letter eight yards long was sent to the Mayor,

To convene a town's meeting, and preside in the chair;

Where M-tt and Jim W-s denounced it clean pelf,

And a voice cried out: "J-y, you want cleaning yourself."

Here are some more:

1872 _Detroit Free Press_ 7 June 2/2 (Newspapers.com)  When Chandler gets the floor, watch out!  A correspondent has seen the speech, and it's nine yards long, with more than 5,000 exclamation points in it.

1873 _Brooklyn Daily Eagle_ 4 Feb. 2/2 (Newspapers.com)  Mr. Tilden is out in a briefs and pithy letter nine yards long.

1892 _Atlanta Constitution_ 20 Mar. 18/4 (Newspapers.com)  The president has got a speech ten yards long and he's going to catch Hill and make it, if he has to chase him back to Washington.

1896 _Anaconda_ (Mont.) _Standard_ 15 Sept. 4/3 (Newspapers.com)  If General Palmer really has the welfare of the country at heart, he might at least spare it a letter of acceptance six yards long.

1898 _Fame: A Journal ofr Advertisers_ Oct. 418/2 (Google Books)  If the Fiend appears, with a letter ten yards long, full of glowing descriptions of some Klondike scheme of his, it is as easy to tell him in a courteous note that it is a vary beautiful scheme.

1902 _Brooklyn Eagle_  (Newspapers.com)  pithy speeches six yards long  [I haven't written down the details of this one yet]

Fred Shapiro


YALE BOOK OF QUOTATIONS (Yale University Press)

From: Bonnie Taylor-Blake <b.taylorblake at gmail.com>
Sent: Monday, May 20, 2019 10:48 AM
To: Shapiro, Fred
Subject: Re: Intriguing 1828 Citation

Hey, Fred.

Yes, this *is* interesting! Thank you for sharing it with me.

And now, a few overly long thoughts.

Like you, I think we're looking at expressions of linear text/presentation, either in terms of lengths of newspaper text (as we and others have discussed) or in terms of metaphorical length (as we and others have also discussed) to designate a long story. Of course, "yards" has been used figuratively for this for a long time (as we all know). You and I don't think yards of fabric has anything to do with this; Peter's argument (as we know) is that Americans were certainly familiar with 6 yards and 9 yards of various textiles and that this influenced the expression. (Sorry, I just wanted to put to paper what we've discussed before.)

I'm a little hesitant at the moment to home in on specific numerals, like 6 and 9, though I certainly acknowledge the need to figure out why 6 and why 9 in the modern form (with WSY still today a rare form). For example, although we have that wonderful 1850 "your nine yards" (etc.), which I definitely think is related to the idiom as we know it, there's that mysterious "whole three 3 yards" from just up the road -- Hillsborough, North Carolina -- in 1882 (or 1883, I've forgotten). My hunch (FWIW) is that the proto-idiom first hinged on "[variable] yards" and that somehow we ended up with 6 and 9. I can hear you telling me, "but we have to start somewhere when it comes to the numerals used!" So I understand your interest in this 1828 find. And I definitely understand your interest in a possible British origin and/or an American coinage of a uniquely American idiom through influence of the usage that you've found. (Just out of curiosity -- have you seen this snippet reproduced in other American newspapers or did it appear in just that Vermont newspaper?)

Something that's alternately fascinating and vexing and which to me makes this is a real puzzle is the fact that we're only seeing these usages (by necessity, of course) in digitized 19th-c newspapers. Does the origin of the idiom lie in "newspaper-speak" or were these journalists capturing and making use of an idiom/usage more generalized to the public and which we haven't been able to find?

The former certainly seems plausible -- we see mentions of "yards of editorials," etc., in 19th-c newspapers, so perhaps these newspaper editors are thinking in terms of literal or hyperbolic linear yards of columns, as they do in "column inches" today. And all the uses we see are coming from folks by necessity familiar with the newspaper industry, so perhaps there is a "newspaper-speak" origin.

On the other hand, we haven't found a way to effectively probe non-newspaper sources (such as letters and diary entries) for instances of the idiom or proto-idiom in these documents, which could reveal usages by the non-newspaper public not influenced by "newspaper-speak."

You've sensed a lot of fence-sitting in me, then, and no doubt I've repeated things I've mentioned in earlier messages. The 1828 find is really interesting and certainly suggestive; thank you so much for sharing it and opening up the puzzle to me again. I've been going down the route of "yards of [form of text or form of presentation] and "[form of text of form of presentation] by the yard," and "[form of text or form of presentation] [X] yards long," but, well, I've spelled out why I'm a little cautious of the newspaper angle at moment, as tantalizing as it may be. (Let me know, though, if you'd like me to share the 19th-c data that I found. I think I can still find it.) But -- whatever you do and whenever you do it -- you absolutely must find a way to re-iterate Richard Bucci's find, if only to dispel the OED's and others' reliance on that 1855 "Judge's Big Shirt" anecdote.

Please don't be discouraged by what I've written. I'm very excited, and/but I think -- as I'm sure you do -- there's still a need to approach this angle cautiously.

Thanks for looping me in. This is fun.

: )

On Sun, May 19, 2019 at 4:13 PM Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at yale.edu<mailto:fred.shapiro at yale.edu>> wrote:

If not a British context, at least an Eastern context ...


From: Shapiro, Fred
Sent: Sunday, May 19, 2019 3:46 PM
To: Bonnie Taylor-Blake
Subject: Intriguing 1828 Citation


Hope you are well.

As you know, I believe that the 1850 citation found by Richard Bucci in a Missouri newspaper, referring to "nine yards" as the length of an epistle, is the same idiom as "whole nine yards."  I have been trying to find other similar citations in the 1800s and have found several of them.  The earliest is the following, which I think is extremely intriguing:

1828 _Vermont Chronicle_ (Bellows Falls, Vt.) 20 June 3/4 (Newspapers.com)  [Referring to a British House of Commons debate:]  Sir F. Burdett then rose and addressed the house in a speech _six yards long_, measuring the close columns of the London papers.

If this is viewed as being the same idiom as "whole nine yards," then it seems to (1) push back the idiom to the early 1800s; (2) give new life to the theory that "six yards" was the original idiom rather than "nine yards"; (3) introduce an unexpected British context to the idiom.  AND, since the most important question about the idiom is "six or nine yards of what?," this citation could be regarded as establishing the length of newspaper articles (or their hyperbolic length) as the answer to that question.

What do you think?  Please keep this confidential for the time being.


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