There are some queries that we answerers of questions on the story of the English language get asked more often than others. “What is the third word ending in gry?” has come top of the list by a good margin. But “Where does the whole nine yards come from?” runs it a close second.
This has long been one of the great unsolved mysteries of modern etymology, though recent research work has brought us closer to a solution. What we have known for many years is that the phrase dates from after the Second World War, is American (it’s nothing like so well known in Britain, for example), and has the meaning of “everything; all of it; the whole lot; the works”.
What is most remarkable about the phrase is the number of attempts that have been made to explain it. This may be because it’s an odd expression. But perhaps our need to make sense of this saying in particular is because it became widely known only during the lifetime of many people still with us, and so lacks the patina of age that turns phrases into naturalised idioms that we accept without question.
I’ve come across references to the length of a standard bolt of cloth, the amount of material needed to make a three-piece suit, the size of a nun’s habit, the length of a maharajah’s ceremonial sash, the length of cloth needed for a Scottish “great kilt”, the capacity of a West Virginia ore wagon, the volume of rubbish that would fill a standard garbage truck, the length of a hangman’s noose, how far you would have to sprint during a jail break to get from the cellblock to the outer wall, the volume of a rich man’s grave, or just possibly the length of his shroud, the size of a soldier’s pack, a reference to a group of nine shipyards in the Second World War, the capacity of a ready-mixed concrete truck, or some distance associated with sports or athletics, especially the game of American football.
Yet another explanation, a particularly pervasive one, is that it was invented by fighter pilots during World War Two. It is claimed that the .50 calibre machine gun ammunition belts in an aircraft of the period measured exactly 27 feet. If the pilots fired all their ammo at a target, they would say that it got “the whole nine yards”. A merit of this claim is that it would explain why the phrase only began to be recorded after the War. Others have argued for a connection with the Vietnam War, during which the expression became much better known and from which many examples are recorded. It was also recorded in the jargon of the US space programme:
A “motorman's friend” is the astronaut’s version of a bathroom — attached inside his space suit. “Give ’em the whole nine yards” means an item-by-item report on any project.
Salt Lake Tribune, 3 May 1964.
The breakthrough in the search for its origins came in 2012 when Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher in North Carolina, found an example in the June 1956 issue of a wildlife magazine called Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground. Shortly after, she unearthed a headline in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina dating from 7 May 1921: “The Whole Six Yards of It”, implying that the report of the baseball game beneath the headline was a complete description of it. Following this up, she discovered another example of the whole six yards from 1916 in The Mount Vernon Signal of Kentucky. Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School and author of the Yale Book of Quotations, found two from 1912, of which this is one:
As we have been gone for a few days and failed to get all the news for this issue we will give you the whole six yards in our next.
Mount Vernon Signal (Kentucky), 28 Jun. 1912.
Coupled with the finding of the whole nine yards from the same state in 1956, this suggests a rural or backwoods origin for the expression, rather than the military ones that have been most strongly advocated. It also suggests that the number isn’t important and doesn’t refer to anything in particular. Fred Shapiro argues that it’s an example of “phrase inflation” similar to that which pushed Cloud Seven up to Cloud Nine.
Both researchers stress this is negative evidence and that there's still scope for further discoveries that may take the story back further. Most importantly, we have no idea of the circumstances that led somebody to create the expression — the number may not be important, but it must have been triggered by something.
There’s no doubt among lexicographers and professional etymologists that, however the story finally pans out, these discoveries will do little to squash the more colourful tales that are circulating. Everyone loves a good story and few will let the truth get in the way of it.