[Ads-l] "filled a sheet nine yards long," 1654 or 1655

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Oct 5 20:57:36 UTC 2020

There are numerous examples of lengthy petitions, letters and other 
written documents being described, generally hyperbolically, as having a 
length of several yards.  My recollection, on having previously looked 
up many examples of "petitions" specifically during the 1800s, and 
recently looking for "letters" from the same time period, I get no good 
feel for there being any particular length that predominates.  I did 
find one example of silk-covered wallpaper sold in lengths of nine 
yards, although that is ambiguous because it's not clear whether the 
length is due to a limitation in the length of silk or of the paper.

I don't recall ever seeing any clear evidence of the existence of an 
idiomatic use of "whole (or full) nine yards (or other length)" until 
the examples from the early 1900s that are generally six yards.

My recollection is also that when people have shared the early examples 
of "whole nine yards" from the NASA program in the 50s or early 60s, 
that they clearly refer to long lists of procedures or parts or 
regulations or red tape of some some sort.

However, it is not clear that the specific length necessarily relates to 
actual papers or lists of nine yards.  It seems plausible that someone 
familiar with the earlier idiom from a few decades earlier might apply 
it to a new situation, borrowing the length from some earlier item 
unrelated to paper.

The "nine yards" might be borrowed from familiarity with lengths of 
fabric sold in those lengths, even if the idiom itself is being used to 
refer to paper in the 1960s.  The "six yards" in the 1910s or 20s might 
also relate to familiarity with lengths of fabric known to be commonly 
sold in lengths of six or nine yards.

Even early examples referring to "nine yards" long letters or petitions 
might be borrowing the commonly known length of fabric to the paper.  
But the varied lengths ascribed to long petitions or letters suggests to 
me that the choice of number might be random, for the most part, in 
those cases.

------ Original Message ------
From: dave at wilton.net
To: ADS-L at listserv.uga.edu
Sent: 10/5/2020 11:43:44 AM
Subject: Re: "filled a sheet nine yards long," 1654 or 1655

>---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       dave at WILTON.NET
>Subject:      Re: "filled a sheet nine yards long," 1654 or 1655
>At issue is whether the phrase "nine yards" was an idiom meaning the
>entirety of or an excessive amount of, as opposed to there being no such
>idiom and such appearances are simple exaggerations. To determine that, you
>need to do a statistical comparison of the number of instances of figurative
>uses of "one yard," "two yards," "three yards," "four yards," ... "nine
>yards," "ten yards," "eleven yards," etc. If "nine yards" appears
>significantly more frequently than other numbers, then such early uses might
>be legitimate precursors to the idiom "the whole nine yards." If not, then
>no such early idiom existed.
>I'm not sure what this has to do with the argument about "copasetic." That's
>an entirely different question. As a general rule, the first recorded
>appearance of a word is rarely the earliest actual use. Usually, words are
>used in speech or ephemeral writing for some period of time before appearing
>in a recorded source. And often a person may believe they coined it, when in
>fact earlier uses can be shown (e.g., Beyonce and "bootylicious). A good
>example is the declining number of first citations by Shakespeare in the
>OED. Every three months, as the OED publishes updated entries, the count
>decreases a bit as antedatings are discovered. It may very well be that
>Bacheller coined the word for his 1919 novel, but we shouldn't assume that
>unless we have solid evidence that it is the case. And in fact, the
>appearance of the word in unconnected newspaper articles and in song over
>the next year or so indicate that the term was in wider use by the time
>Bacheller used it.
>-----Original Message-----
>From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> On Behalf Of Stephen
>Sent: Monday, October 5, 2020 9:20 AM
>Subject: Re: [ADS-L] "filled a sheet nine yards long," 1654 or 1655
>Thanks for correcting the citation that I copied--correctly, this time,
>though I am a poor typist--from the book cited.
>On the other hand, the main issue may not be nine, nor six, or others, as
>Bonnie and Fred and others found; "whole nine yards" might sound more
>emphatic, or final, or mystical, than other enumerations, most of which are
>apparently notional in any case. X yards of communication, including orally,
>may not necessarily be measurable, much less actually done, in (feet or
>meters) length, nor in area, nor in spatial volume. And not necessarily a
>big gap in that sort of usage, as Fred, Garson and I (maybe others) have
>Rather, the main issue may well be in the sense of "yards." Yards has many
>senses, perhaps we can agree. X yards is not necessarily a known or natural
>limit, of fullness (wholeness, all, entirety) but sometimes an excess.
>You, of course, are free to interpret differently, though I am a bit baffled
>how you arrive at it. For example, I think I showed that "copasetic" was
>rather likely coined by Irving Bacheller, in his well-selling 1919 book and
>Language Log > Copasetic<https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=31372>
>Above is a guest post by Stephen Goranson. I'll note that the OED's entry
>for copacetic calls the etymology "Origin unknown", but gives Bacheller's
>1919 novel as the first citation.. March 3, 2017 @ 8:20 am . Filed by Mark
>Liberman under Etymology. Permalink languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu
>There you commented:
>"Dave Wilton said,
>March 3, 2017 @ 10:33
>I'm skeptical about Bacheller's invention of the word. It seems more likely
>that he used a slang term that was "in the air" at the time. The Chicago
>Tribune connection is very tenuous. The book review makes no mention of the
>word or of the character's language, and it was written by a Sylvia
>Parkinson, who apparently contributed only this one review and was not on
>the paper's staff. The appearance eight months later in an anonymous
>headline cannot be seriously connected to Bacheller's book. And the
>appearance in song lyrics that same year hints that it was already in
>somewhat widespread use that year."
>If there are statistics there, the math eludes me.
>In any case, such things may be decided beyond you and me.
>Thanks again for correcting the citation.
>Stephen Goranson
>From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of
>dave at WILTON.NET <dave at WILTON.NET>
>Sent: Monday, October 5, 2020 8:55 AM
>Subject: Re: "filled a sheet nine yards long," 1654 or 1655
>Some corrections to the seventeenth-century citation. The correct issue is:
>Collings, Richard. Weekly Intelligencer, 206, 21-28 February 1653. Early
>English Books Online (EEBO).
>The date is not 1654. The exact wording in the piece is:
>"There was a Bill exhibited this last Sessions against a Counselor for
>corruption, which was nine yards in length, and a foot in breadth."
>I can't find anything in the 11-18 September 1655 issue; nor can I find the
>"beagles" quotation. Given the citation error in the earlier issue, I don't
>trust the source to have reported it accurately. Full text search in EEBO
>can be hit or miss, so absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
>I think it's a stretch to link this seventeenth-century line to the
>present-day phrase. It's clearly a figurative use, but picking out
>individual cases where a writer uses "nine yards" figuratively doesn't tell
>us anything of use. You need to search a corpus for figurative uses of "#
>yards" and do a statistical comparison of how often "nine yards" appears in
>relation to other numbers. If "nine" appears more often than other numbers,
>then you have something. But I'd be willing to bet that until the twentieth
>century you don't see "nine" appearing in such figurative uses more often
>than any other number.
>Now if you found a figurative use of "whole nine yards" or "entire nine
>yards" from the seventeenth century, that would be really interesting.
>-----Original Message-----
>From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> On Behalf Of Stephen
>Sent: Monday, October 5, 2020 6:52 AM
>Subject: [ADS-L] "filled a sheet nine yards long," 1654 or 1655
>Richard Collings produced The Weekly Intelligencer of the Commonwealth,
>supporting Oliver Cromwell.
>".Colling's style, if now more subdued, still showed a superior range and
>flexibility, as well as an occasional sparkle of humor. With a straight face
>he referred to an indictment of a lawyer that filled a sheet nine yards
>long, and in his next-to-last number he commented on himself and his
>colleagues: "It is with your Writers of Intelligence as with a pack of
>Beagles hunting in the field, if one puppy doth make but a faint discovery,
>the whole Pack will be ready to clap in, and in a ful cry run themselves out
>of breath..'" [endnote 15] Note 15: "Weekly Intelligencer, 206, Feb. 21-28,
>1654, p. 178; Sept. 11-18, 1655, p. 34."
>Pages 239 and 355 in Joseph Frank, The Beginnings of the English Newspaper:
>1620-1660 (Harvard UP, 1961).
>(The above mentioned before, but here with extended quotation.) Whole nine
>may be related to whole six and all/full/entire x-number (of) yards. Since
>yards is often the putative measure of (often excess) communication, that's
>why I suggest it may not refer to fabric for clothing. And the measurement
>may not be literal. If a kid says she has tons of homework, it's a safe bet
>such declaration involved no real mensuration.
>Stephen Goranson
>PS Thanks Garson, I now have access to my interlibrary loan copy of the
>Graphic Science 1969 text. These days it can be harder to assemble paper
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