Phrases creep into public speech, find popular usage, and only
later do we begin to wonder what some of these expressions actually
mean. "The whole nine yards..." is one of those phrases.
The phrase is commonly understood to mean "the entire thing -- all of it"
and has been in use for almost 200 years. However, there is no
consensus on its origin. Here are NINE different possibilities:
(1) Early bolts of cloth contained nine yards of material. The standard
garment would use between four and seven yards, but if the client
was large or wanted an elaborate suit, it took the 'whole nine yards'.
(2) British Frigates of the 19th Century had 27' masts. The ship speed
was controlled by the amount of sail raised. To achieve full speed,
the 'whole nine yards' was hoisted.
(3) For many years, the cleared area between a prison wall and the
surrounding countryside was a 27-foot wide "no man's land" over which
escapees had to cross to make a clean getaway. "I hear Tony Boyle made a
break for it? how far did he go?" "He went the 'whole nine
(4) Some folks claim it refers to football -- On second down you
went for the entire distance for a first down instead of slogging
it out for just a few yards each down.
(5) Another nautical explanation relates it to a 'yard of ale', a long,
thin drinking glass. New sailors in the British Navy, as part of their
initiation rite, were required to make the rounds of nine certain pubs
near the London docks and drink a 'yard' of ale at each.
(6) World War II fighter planes carried nine yards of ammunition belts in
their machine guns. A flier who had seen heavy action on a combat
mission was said to have used his "whole nine yards".
(7) Then there are the truck theories. Early cement trucks carried nine
yards of mixed concrete. It was a good run indeed, if, instead of making
several stops to deliver concrete, a driver could deliver the 'whole nine
yards' at a single stop.
(8) In early England, an entire load of coal for heating was carried in a
container that was nine yards long. Most people could not afford it,
but if you were able to take 'the whole nine yards' it was a mark
of wealth and standing.
(9) The sari worn by most women in India uses six yards of cloth.
However, for weddings and other special occasions, they would
go to their closets and come out with 'the whole nine yards'.
There you have nine explanations for this commonly used phrase.
Which one is the real source?
I personally like the 'concrete' explanation, but the phrase was being
used (apparently as early as 1810) long before concrete existed,
and so, to me, the coal wagon citation (8) seems the most likely.
Which one would you choose?
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