March 27, 2008

"Whole Nine Yards"

Stupid Question ™
Oct. 14, 1999
By John Ruch
© 1999

Q: What’s the meaning and origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards”?

A: What it means is easy: “everything,” “to the full extent,” “the whole way.”
Where it came from…well, nobody knows.

Origin theories lacking any evidence include: amount of cloth in a suit/kilt/bridal gown/nun habit/monk robe; capacity (in cubic yards) of a cement mixer/garbage truck/mining cart/soldier’s pack/grave/World War II ammo box; length of World War II airplane ammo belts/standard bolt of cloth/maharahjah’s sash; football yardage; distance between a prison’s wall and fence; number of yardarms holding sails on a ship; yard as a type of drinking glass used in a supposed Navy ritual of drinking at nine pubs in one night.

The “Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang” has found a “provocative” 1958 reference to supposed Appalachian folklore about a burial shroud being nine yards long. But this could be pure coincidence; there’s no known relation with our phrase.

The phrase certainly relates in formula to earlier phrases like “whole shebang,” “whole kit and caboodle,” etc.

It’s possible the “nine” doesn’t refer to any measurement and instead to such phraseology as “to the nines” (“to perfection” or “to completion”), which probably came from saying something was up to the standards of the Nine Muses of Greek mythology.

As for “yard”: “by the yard” has long meant “a lot.” In building terms, it refers to a cubic yard of cement, stone, etc. (hence the cement mixer guess). In criminal slang of the 1920s, it meant $100, and in prison slang it means a 100-year sentence. It’s also archaic slang for “penis.”

Then there are prison yards, railroad yards and front yards.

In the slang of US soldiers in the Vietnam War, “Yards” (a corruption of French Montagnards) were friendly mountain aboriginal troops.

That’s interesting because of what we do know about the phrase: it’s definitely of American origin, and the first known citation is in war correspondent Elaine Shepard’s 1966 book “The Doom Pussy” (which has a fascinating etymology itself), about US aerial forces in Vietnam. Shepard appears to have been using the phrase in imitation of soldier slang.

The “Yards” may have nothing to do with it, of course. I like the World War II ammo belt theory (reportedly proposed by famed historian Stephen Ambrose): say that World War II air-gunners started using the phrase (“Give ’em the whole nine yards [of ammo]!”), and it remained military aviator slang through Vietnam, when reporters picked it up and started spreading it.

But the phrase isn’t in books on World War II or Vietnam slang, and Vietnam vets I talked to didn’t recall any military origin of the phrase. (One was even sure the kilt theory was right.)

The key is Shepard, who might be able to explain her use of the phrase. I was unable to get in touch with her—but someone should.

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