What’s the origin of “the whole nine yards”?

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Dear Cecil: Where does the expression “the whole nine yards” come from? Even Walter Payton had to make ten yards for a first down. Since when does nine yards equal 100 percent effort? I trust your answer is not sexual. No enhancer I’ve ever seen advertised promises anything like that. Russell E., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Don’t get smart, Russell, not that there’s any great danger.

The usual authorities are silent on this topic, so Cecil has been trolling for leads on radio talk shows. This has turned up numerous theories, some of them pretty ingenious, in a demented sort of way.

One guy told me that the expression comes from the nautical term “yard,” meaning one of the horizontal poles that hold up the sails on a square-rigged sailing ship. A typical ship, he claimed, would have three masts with three yards apiece, or nine yards in all. A captain who had sent up all the canvas he could in order to squeeze out max velocity would thus be said to be giving it “the whole nine yards.”

Could be, but I doubt it. For one thing, sailing ships often had 12, 15, or even 18 yards. For another, “whole” in this context is a funny choice of words. “All nine yards” would make more sense.

Others have told me that coal trucks in New England originally had three sections that contained three cubic yards of coal apiece. If you anticipated a bitterly cold winter, naturally you asked for the whole nine yards.

More commonly, however, you hear that the expression comes from the capacity of ready-mix concrete trucks. Concrete trucks supposedly contain nine cubic yards when fully loaded. This view was advanced by William Safire in his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine. I wrote to Bill inquiring about his sources, but all I got by way of reply was a postcard congratulating me on my interest in language.

Pending further illumination on that score, I’ve checked with several ready-mix companies. They tell me that while drum size on concrete trucks varies (the drum is what holds the concrete), capacity generally ranges from seven to ten yards. Nine yards is a rough average. In short, we could be onto something here.

But I’m skeptical. I note that the ready-mix business dates back only to the late 40s and early 50s. So all we have to do to disprove the concrete theory — something disturbs me about that juxtaposition, but never mind — is to find an earlier citation. I’ll endeavor to do so, but if the Teeming Millions want to help out, be my guest.

The people speak, round one

Dear Cecil:

Not that I am calling you a liar, but I would like to dispute your answer to the question posed in a recent column regarding the origin of the term “the whole nine yards.” It is not a nautical, coal, or ready-mix term but rather relates to the clothing industry. It is a term that tailors used for denoting the extent that one wishes to invest in a custom-made suit. It takes exactly nine square yards of material to create a man’s three-piece suit. If an individual desires a suit that is tailored to the “hilt” (double lined, etc.), he would request that the tailor should proceed with “the whole nine yards.” Anything shy of nine yards would mean various alterations. This would lessen the overall quality of the suit. My source: Howell M., father, friend, and personal adviser. His credentials: Noted sharp dresser and business executive, Michigan Avenue, Chicago. His experience: 35 years.

— Chris M., Tempe, Arizona

Dear Cecil:

I think I can answer the one about “the whole nine yards,” though I can’t recall my source. The phrase comes from, of all things, wedding veils. In olden days, any bride who really wanted to impress the neighbors (and whose father could foot the bill) simply had to have a veil nine yards in length. Take a look at the Princess Di wedding pictures and you’ll see what I mean. Anything less was, well, something less. Hence the phrase originally applied to fancy, blowout weddings — “the whole nine yards.”

— Betsy D., Washington, D.C.

Cecil replies:

It’s at times like these that I wish I’d gone into a more respectable line of work, such as numbers running. At least that way I’d get definite results, which is more than you can say for free-lance etymology. I’ve looked into both theories outlined above, and while I’m dubious, neither can be flatly ruled out.

The amount of cloth required for a man’s three-piece suit varies with the man, but the average is about 4 to 4-1/2 yards measured off a 30-inch bolt. Cloth for men’s suits is generally sold “double-width,” meaning it’s folded in half before being put on bolts. The actual cloth size is 60 inches wide. This works out to 6-2/3 to 7-1/2 square yards of cloth, well shy of the nine yards we’re after, even for a good suit.

The fact that a suit is top quality doesn’t mean it uses more cloth than the run-of-the-mill variety. If anything, according to one tailor I spoke to, custom-made suits use less cloth, since there’s less waste during cutting. I talked to a number of tailors, one of whom had been in business 40 years. None had heard the expression “the whole nine yards” used in connection with the men’s clothing business.

However, a seamstress did opine that once upon a time cloth for men’s coats had been sold on single-width bolts. Four and a half yards of double-width cloth presumably equals nine yards of single-width. So she cast her vote for Papa M.’s theory. Fine by me. I’d hate to give a boy reason to doubt his old man.

It’s pretty much the same story with bridal veils. The longest veil seen nowadays is generally 180 inches, or 15 feet. But a saleswoman at one bridal shop confirmed that years ago your basic last-days-of-Pompeii-type wedding might in fact feature a 27-foot veil. She herself believed that this was the origin of the expression “the whole nine yards.”

Lady Di’s train was 25 feet long. Allowing a couple extra feet for the veil (which attaches to the head, as opposed to the train, which attaches to the waist), we come up with nine yards. We’re thus faced with an apparent case of linguistic parallel development — an expression that three different industries (ready-mix concrete, bridal wear, and maybe men’s tailoring) claim as their own.

With all respect to the Teeming Millions’ fathers, the only thing that will settle the issue is published citations — examples of “the whole nine yards” in books and periodicals, the earlier the better. You got one, send it in. We’ll get to the bottom of this yet.

The people speak, round two

Dear Cecil:

The term “the whole nine yards” originally referred to the amount of fabric it took to make an authentic dress for a colonial lady. To this day, ladies who wish to have costumes made can do with no less than nine yards of material, not to mention lace, buttons, snaps and whatever else it takes to complete the outfit. The expression “the whole nine yards” includes all these extras.

— Mrs. J.C., Yorktown, Virginia

Dear Cecil:

“The whole nine yards” refers to the last thing a person used to receive in this world. It is the amount of cloth an old-fashioned undertaker used to make a funeral shroud.

— Stephen K., Madison, Wisconsin

Dear Cecil:

I submit that the phrase has its origins not in concrete, coal, or sailing ships but in the humble general store of bygone days. These stores sold just about everything a family could need, including fabric. Embedded in the counter were small brass nail three feet apart, which were used to measure yards of material, which usually came in bolts of nine yards. If you needed only a few yards of material, you would “get down to brass tacks” and buy the desired amount. If, however, you needed a large quantity of fabric, then you would just say give me “the whole nine yards.” While this answer is speculative, I believe it more likely than some of the others. How many other phrases have come to use from the ready-made concrete industry?

— James M., Pasadena, California

Dear Cecil:

I heard it originated somewhere in England and referred to the difference between a proper burial and a pauper’s burial. If you were well-to-do, you could afford to have “the whole nine yards” of dirt removed for your grave, as opposed to the poor who couldn’t pay for such a large plot.

— Cathy B., Norfolk, Virginia

Dear Cecil:

It is an expression from the sewing circle. To this day all fabric comes in bolts of nine yards. Check it out.

— Teresa H., San Antonio, Texas

Dear Cecil:

With regard to the origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards,” one must keep in mind the inevitable reduction of the subtle and urbane to the pedestrian and vulgar in the hands of the “teeming millions.” It seems perfectly logical to me that the true meaning of the phrase does indeed spring from football. However, rather than indicating fulfillment of a goal, the phrase probably was originally intended ironically. In an instance of shortfallen achievement where a disdainful comment would be appropriate, it could be said sarcastically that “he went the whole nine yards.” For example, in answering the original reader’s query, Cecil certainly went the whole nine yards.

— Rick A., Chicago

Cecil replies:

Contrary to common belief, cloth doesn’t come in bolts of nine yards “to this day.” Twenty to twenty-five yards is more like it.

As for the rest of you people, I’m not interested in your freaking opinions. I want facts. Since none appear to be forthcoming, I declare this discussion closed until such time as I can go investigate myself. This is the last time I ask you guys for anything.

The whole nine yards (again)

Dear Cecil:

No opinions, no made up stories about wedding veils, coal, suits, or brass tacks. Based on discussions with my grandfathers, both World War II veterans, and confirmed by several military sources, here is the definitive answer for where “the whole nine yards” came from. The whole nine yards refers to the length of one ammunition belt from a belly-gunner’s machine gun. When a target was overly resilient and the gunner was forced to expend all his ammunition to bring it down, it was said to have taken the “whole nine yards.” Also, when loading up for a mission that was going to be particularly dangerous, gunners would refer to bringing the “whole nine yards,” as they would need quite a bit of ammunition to complete the mission safely.

— Ian McDonald, New York

Cecil replies:

You’re not dragging me into this one again. To quote Evan Morris, the Word Detective (www.word-detective.com): “‘The whole nine yards’ first cropped up in print in the mid-1960s … Even if machine gun belts really were 27 feet long in WWII, why has the phrase ‘the whole nine yards’ not been found in a single published account of that very well-documented war?”

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.