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Word Nerd: Debunking the whole nine yards, one cubic foot at a time

In 1997, in his Encyclopedia of Words and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson’s entry for “whole nine yards” states: “The expression did not arise in the garment industry but among construction workers, the nine yards referring to the maximum capacity a cement-mixer truck can carry—nine cubic yards of cement.”

Hendrickson was not the only commentator who felt the phrase’s origin was cast in cement. In 2003, wordsmith William Safire in his book No Uncertain Terms asserted that the expression referred to a fully loaded concrete truck whose contents are usually measured in an amount of nine cubic yards.

So it would appear that one of the greatest etymological puzzles in the English language had been settled. Safire had previously dedicated eight columns to this phrase’s origin before opting for the concrete truck theory because of diligent research, buttressed by many letters from construction workers that supported the hypothesis.

I have never accepted this theory. The phrase didn’t surface until the early ’60s, at a time when the average concrete mixer size was only 6.25 cubic yards. So it seems unlikely that “nine yards” would be found in the expression, given it would take at least three more decades for concrete mixers to possess a nine-cubic-yard capacity.

Googling “whole nine yards” yields a cornucopia of explanations. After each, you will find my brief debunking analysis in brackets.

It derives from the amount of cloth it takes to make a suit/veil/kilt/burial shroud or the number of lots in a large city block (There is no standard size for a bolt of cloth, or the number of lots in a city block.)

It comes from the nautical term “yard,” which refers to the poles that hold up sails, with a typical ship having three masts of three yards each. (Large square-rigged ships had more than nine yards, and in any case the expression would then begin “all” and not “whole.”)

It refers to the length of a belt of machine-gun ammunition carried by a Second World War pilot; ergo to expend all of ones’s supply. (Ammunition is either measured by weight or counted in rounds and never measured by the belt’s length.) Also, even if machine gun belts were nine yards, there is not a single documentation of “whole nine yards” being used in this fashion during the Second World War.

It is a sarcastic reference to American football, where nine yards leaves a team one yard short of a first down. (If it had a football provenance, a non-sarcastic expression of “whole 10 yards” would have been more likely to develop.)

It refers to the number of cubic yards of dirt in a burial plot for a wealthy person. (We are not burying a bear. Most plots contain only four cubic yards of dirt regardless of the economic circumstances of the departed.)

Thanks to help afforded by searchable databases that have developed during the last decade, I will now reveal which one of the above etymological theories I believe is correct:

None!

In a December 2012 article in the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reported that Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School, was searching Chronicling America, a library database of pre-1923 newspapers, when he found two 1912 articles in the Mount Vernon Signal (Kentucky) that guaranteed to provide readers the “whole six yards” of a story. Subsequently, another researcher unearthed another citation of this phrase in a 1916 edition of the same newspaper. Archivists have also discovered this 1921 headline from the Spartanburg Herald-Journal (South Carolina): “The Whole Six Yards.”

It would appear that inflationary forces somewhere between 1912 and the ’60s increased the distance by 50 per cent.

Shapiro believes that the 1912 discovery in a Kentucky newspaper points to a likely “backwoods provenance.” I think it is also fair to say that the expression was not first used to refer to a specific amount and that the “whole nine/six yards” just as easily could read “whole shebang” or “whole enchilada.”

However, as many people love exotic etymologies and an iconic phrase that began its life as referring to a random number is not particularly exciting, I suspect not everyone will accept this humdrum explanation. If you’d like to vent your anger toward me, please feel free to contact me and flame the messenger at hrichler@gmail.com.

Howard Richler’s book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published in April by Ronsdale Press.

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