Origins: While the meaning of "the whole nine yards" is relatively well understood, how the saying came into the English language remains a mystery. That little phrase is casually tossed into conversations when the need arises to express that every conceivable (and quite possibly inconceivable) length has been gone to in pursuit of a specific aim. "The whole nine yards" speaks to the completeness of the effort, that nothing was missed or skipped over. But what "nine yards" are being referred to, and why must the "whole" of them be accomplished?
This linguistic flourish has so far been dated to the 1960s. While often the earliest recorded sightings of a puzzling phrase or saying provide clues as to its origin, that is not the case here:
Then the dog would catch on and go
[Car Life, December 1962]
Your staff of testers cannot fairly and equitably appraise the Chevrolet Impala sedan, with all nine yards of goodies, against the Plymouth Savoy which has straight shift and none of the mechanical conveniences which are quite common now.
[Tucson Daily Citizen, 25 April 1964]
"'Give 'em the whole nine yards' means an item-by-item report on any project."
Another popular theory posits the contents of a standard-size cement mixer as the phrase's origin. Concrete is vended by the cubic yard
The third of the three most widely circulated explanations of the term's origin attributes its "nine yards" aspect to the length of machine gun ammunition belts used in World
Q: What's the origin of "the whole nine yards"?
One of the most common sources for this expression is military. During World
Beyond those primary three theories of the idiom's origin are these lesser ones:
- The length of fabric necessary to fashion:
- a wedding dress
- a man's suit
- a burial shroud
- a bridal veil
- a sari
- a sarong
- a kimono
In that lengthy tale, love-struck Andrew MacTavish sets off to visit his fiancée while well into his cups. He bears (or, rather, believes he bears) a kilt his mother has woven for him, but in his excitement or drunkenness has managed to slam the door on that item of clothing, thereby pulling it from his person and leaving him naked under his cloak. Said kilt, by the way, had been drastically cut down from its original length of nine yards, thereby setting up the tale's denouement.
Andrew arrives at his girlfriend's home in the middle of the night, awakens her by throwing stones at her window, then once she is gazing down at him, throws off his cloak, thereby displaying his full male glory. Unaware of his unclothed state, he boldly asks if she likes what she sees, to which she blushingly replies that she does, prompting his proud statement: "Well, lass, that's nothing! I've got eight more yards at home!"
Barbara "the whole shebang" Mikkelson
Last updated: 1 May 2012
Hendrickson, Robert. Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Facts on File, 1997. ISBN 0-86237-122-7. (p. 774). McQuain, Jeffrey. Never Enough Words. New York: Random House, 1999. ISBN 0-679-45804-2 (p. 46). Morris, Evan. The Word Detective. New York: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0-45228-264-0 (pp. 212-214). Siefring, Judith. Oxford Dictionary of Idioms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-861055-6 (p. 312). Wilton, David. Word Myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-517284-1 (pp. 34-38). The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-861258-3.