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.

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