Monday, April 29, 2013

(This article was published in May 2013 in Lexpert under the title "Nine Yards Loses Nine Feeet.")

The Whole Nine Yards loses nine feet


Howard Richler

In 1997, in his Encyclopedia of Words and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson's entry 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 phrases'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 “dilligent research, buttressed by many letters from construction workers” that supported the hypothesis.

I for one have never acceped 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 for the phrase's provenance. 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” thar 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 World War 11 pilot; ergo to expend all of ones's supply.(Ammunition is either measured by weight or counted in rounds and never measured by the 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 ten 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.)

  • During the Vietnam War, American soldiers encountered the Montagnards, the Vietnamese hill tribes who joined the war American allies. Some pepole said there were nine tribes and the US Army abbreviated their name to “Yards”; ergo, the whole nine yards. (The problem is there were more than nine tribes.)

Other candidates I uneathed in my googling quest include: the length of a hangman's noose; the capacity of a West Virginia garbage truck; the distance a convict would have to dash during a jail break to get from the cellblock to the outer wall; the whipping of prisoners during the Middle Ages with a cat o' nine tails; and the nine pence charge for deluxe theatre seats during the Shakespearean era.

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


In a December 2012 article in the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reported that Fred Shapiro a librarian at Yale Law School was searching in 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 exact 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%.

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 vent your anger towards me, please feel free to contact me and flame the messenger at

Howard Richler's book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts was published in May by Ronsdale Press of Vancouver, B.C.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sussing Out Baby Talk

(This article appeared in the April Lexpert under the title Sussing Out Baby Talk)

Sussing out baby talk and mutant English


                          Howard Richler

(This article is dedicated to my granddaughter Maya Ruth Richler-Stoffman born in Bloomington, Indiana who celebrated her first birthday on April 5, 2013)

I must confess that my Quebec English is not always understood in the ROC (Rest of Canada), showing we Anglos must not only be bilingual in English and French but be conversant in both Quebec English and standard English. Here's an example: Some years ago, in a previous millennium, I was toiling in the steel industry and as I couldn't speak directly to a Newfoundland customer, I left a messageasking the man to phone me back adding “my local is 222.” I found out a week later why the person never phoned me back. My reference to “local” made him think I represented a union – I should have used the term “extension.” Other examples of this phenomenon are the use by Quebec Anglos of the term “stage” for an internship and during the recent student debacle in Quebec I even several English-speaking people refer to student “manifestations.” Surely. it would not be apparent to most people in the English-speaking world that manifestations are “demonstrations.”

Given that Maya is your quintessential apolitical one-year old not involved with unions and demonstrations, one might ask how she fits into this article. Well, a friend of my daughter (Maya's mom) born in Montreal but now living in South Africa had a similar linguistic experience recently when she asked a Johannesburg mother of a toddler whether she used a “suss.” Thos term was met with total non-comprehension by the mother who surmised that “suss” was a Bantu term she wasn't familiar with. So what's going on here?

In reality, English is available in a plethora of flavours. The Oxford Companion to the English Language (OCEL) lists over 400 varieties. Some of them are rather obscure such as Pitcairnese defined as “the creole spoken by the descendants of the mutineers from HMS Bounty, who settled on uninhabited Pitcairn Island in 1790.”

Quebec English is actually one of the mutations listed in the OCEL. In my dealings with the outside world, I'm constantly being reminded, if not chided, about the distinctiveness of my English. Just like my daughter's friend residing in South Africa, many a mother born in Quebec, but bringing up her children eleswhere, is likely to have her mongrel English roots sussed out were she to use the word “suss” as a noun in a baby care context. You see, for many Quebec anglophones a “suss” is their word of choice for a pacifier but this term is not to be found among other English-speaking peoples. That is because it comes from the French-Canadian term for a pacifier sucon or suce and derives from the French word sucer “to suck.” Even in France this Quebecois term would be largely unknown as the definitive word there would be une tetine.

However, this mongrelization is not unusual as the term pacifier varies quite a lot in the English-speaking world. In the United Kingdom the term pacifier is largely unknown and the definitive term for such is a “dummy” because the device is an artificial teat. But even in North America and the UK today many people will use other terms than pacifier and dummy; these include binky or nuk (or nuk-nuk.) Binky was actually a brand name for a pacifier introduced by Playtex in 1948 and produced until 1977. Nuk derives from the Nuk baby product company which was established in Germany in 1964. Interestingly, the term binky grew beyond the sense of pacifier and is often used to refer to a young child's blanket, stuffed animal or other prized possession.

In fact, terms for many products we associate with babies vary considerably in the English-speaking world. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, British English and North American English are two languages separated by an ocean, and we see this chasm in many terms associated with “baby talk.” After all, “popping” a baby in a “cot” in Britain just means placing it there, whereas stating that you “popped” a baby in a North American “crib” might get you arrested for harming an infant.

Also, in England, a nanny changes a baby's nappy and not its diaper. The word “nappy” was first used in English in the 14th century when it referred to a textile fabric and by the next century it referred more specificaaly to a linen fabric. It is in the 17th century that the word is first used to refer to a baby's napkin or cloth. The word nappy is a version of napkin and its first citation in the OED is in 1927. Another transatlantic difference. the “pram” to refer to a baby carriage goes back to 1884 and I was actually that it is actually a shortening of the word perambulator. Nowadays this term has succumbed on both sides of the pond to the more generic descriptive “push chair” or “stroller.”

Happy first birthday, Maya. May you grow to embrace all the forms of English you encounter in the coming year of starting to learn to speak oue ever-changing language.

Howard Richler'st book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in May 2013.