"The whole nine yards," meaning "the full extent of something," remains one of the most puzzling idioms for word-watchers. Everyone seems to have their own explanation for where the expression comes from, and yet there is still no definitive origin story for it. This is surprising for a phrase that's not terribly old: scattered uses can be found from the 1960s, and now it's been pushed back a bit earlier, to 1956.
In a 2009 Word Routes column, I reported on what was then the latest progress in finding the earliest known usage of "the whole nine yards." Two citations from 1962 had been found by contributors to the American Dialect Society mailing list, a haven for those who enjoy the sport of "antedating," or hunting for increasingly earlier documentation of words and phrases. Stephen Goranson had found an example in a short story in the Fall 1962 issue of Michigan's Voices, and Bonnie Taylor-Blake had discovered it in a letter to the editor in the December 1962 issue of Car Life. Both of these examples were found thanks to Google Books: as the massive digitization project continues to grow, newly scanned sources fill in the historical gaps for words and phrases with murky origins, like "the whole nine yards."
Taylor-Blake has continued to monitor Google Books for newly discoverable attestations, and her vigilance has paid off. The database now includes issues of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground from the 1950s — a publication that continues to be put out by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources under the name Kentucky Afield. Google Books turned up examples of "the whole nine yards" in KHHG from 1956 and 1957. But because the relevant passages are only displayed in "snippet view," Taylor-Blake needed to track down the full context for verification, and the current Kentucky Afield editor helped her out, sending along page scans. On page 18 of the July 1956 issue of KHHG, an article headlined "Kentucky Afield Fishing Derbies Are Underway" describes fishing competitions held around Kentucky and the prizes that the winners would get, including a 14-foot boat trailer and Evinrude motor as the Grand Prize. A paragraph near the end of the article wraps things up with "So that's the whole nine-yards."
The second article, on p. 31 of the January 1957 issue, uses "the whole nine yards" (no hyphen this time) to describe hunters: "These guys go the whole nine yards — no halfway stuff for them." Taylor-Blake determined that the author of both articles was Ron Rhody, and remarkably enough he's still around and even has a blog. Rhody told Taylor-Blake that he thought it was a common expression in Kentucky at the time but didn't have any particular insights about its origins. He surmised that it had to do with football yardage, one of the more popular origin stories. Getting a first down in football requires advancing the ball ten yards, so if it was fourth down with nine yards to go, you could go for it and try to get "the whole nine yards" for a first down instead of safely punting. (See my previous Word Routes column for a roundup of theories.)
And so the search continues. The Kentucky connection is an interesting one, but there's no reason to think that the idiom was particularly localized to that state. Stephen Goranson noted that there was a master's thesis in folklore at Western Kentucky University in 1979 with the title "An' the Whole Nine Yards: an Ethnography of a Kentucky Gunsmith." I got in touch with the author of the thesis, Michael Korn, who now works for the Law Enforcement Bureau of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. He told me that he used that title because Joe Hollingsworth, the late Bowling Green gunsmith who was the subject of the thesis, "regularly used the phrase to describe a custom rifle he was building that had every fancy detail." Korn believes that the expression originated from veterans returning from World War II, like Hollingsworth's father. He subscribes to the common conjecture that "the whole nine yards" originally referred to the length of an ammunition belt for machine guns used during the war.
That, or some related military origin, could be the ultimate source, and as the documented sources for "the whole nine yards" creep ever closer back to the World War II era we may eventually find an authoritative explanation for the phrase. For now, though, such an explanation remains tantalizingly out of reach.
(If you'd like to hear more about the history of English idioms, take a listen to the hour I spent on WFAE's "Charlotte Talks" earlier this week, along with UNC Charlotte professor Ralf Thiede.)
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer