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The whole nine yards

December 27, 2012

The phrase refers to football, right? Well…

There is no consensus on the origin, though many early published quotations are now available for study. A vast number of explanations for this phrase have been suggested. Though lacking in evidence, perhaps the most common explanation is that World War II (1939–1945) aircraft machine gun belts were nine yards long; there are many versions of this explanation with variations regarding type of plane, nationality of gunner, and geographic area. But that was not a standard length, and ammunition was usually measured in rounds. Moreover, this explanation does not appear in print until 40 years after the war. Another common explanation is that “nine yards” is a cubic measure and refers to the volume of a cement mixer. But cement mixers were much smaller in the 1960s and none of the early references relate to cement or even to construction. Other proposed sources include the volume of graves; the length of bridal veils, kilts, burial shrouds, bolts of cloth, or saris; a very long list; ritual disembowelment; shipyards; the structure of certain sailing vessels; and American football. While the idea of American football as an origin for the phrase is possible, it is also absurd: to achieve a first down in football — at least from a first-and-ten position — one must gain the whole ten yards.

–Wikipedia, emphasis mine

The moral of the story: we always know less than we think we know. Also, this may be the most eclectic catalog I’ve ever seen that isn’t a conscious attempt at eclecticism.

Note that this list includes items related to war, construction, burial, marriage, clothing, writing, suicide, traveling, and contests. It’s interesting that the phrase “the whole nine yards,” which means roughly “completely, the whole thing,” has been imagined as originating in pretty much every major aspect of human life–the only obvious omissions, to my mind, being parenting and prayer. That suggests something interesting about the latter two; perhaps the impossibility of completing either? Intriguing that one is the most ordinary of human activities, and the other the most extraordinary.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 27, 2012 7:55 pm

    My own investigation into this phrase leads me to believe that it is related to haberdashery. There was a time when clothiers were quite influential. Nine yards of material for a proper and full man’s suit is claimed as the source for ‘the whole 9 yards’ meaning both complete and of top quality. The reason that I came to believe this as the original source is that we have a number of other obscure phrases from this commerce sector: ‘Getting down to brass tacks’ ‘clothes make the man’ ‘dressed to the nines’ ‘best bib and tucker’ ‘run the gauntlet’ ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ ‘if the shoe fits’ ‘tighten your belt’ ‘black tie affair’ ‘off the cuff’ and on and on. We humans have had a love affair with our clothing for a very long time and so I’m rather satisfied that if there is a strong rumor that the phrase is from a clothing related thing, it probably is true.

    It is fasten-ating (ha ha ha) to look at the history of clothing as we know it today. The first zipper was a monstrous thing, and had they had velcro 4 or 5 hundred years ago all our clothing would be different. Things like ties and collars would be completely different etc. Most of the decorative clothing ‘things’ are to hide what used to be hideous fasteners or simple ties. There are still left-overs from a knight’s armor as well. Our traditions and how and why we keep them are an amazing story.

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