How often do you see an article about the search for the origin of a phrase on the homepage of the New York Times website? Just about... never. And yet the Times today has a story about the history of an expression that we've delved into a couple of times in this space: "the whole nine yards." Diligent word-sleuthing has turned up a rather unexpected predecessor: "the whole six yards."
I'm quoted in the Times article as saying that the source of "the whole nine yards" is "a kind of Holy Grail" for word researchers, and a look at my previous two columns on the phrase shows why: though it's a relatively new expression (currently only dated back to 1956), the basis for the idiom has been shrouded in mystery and continues to attract folk etymologies, from the plausible to the far-fetched.
The recent discoveries won't satisfy those seeking a tidy, clear-cut explanation for what the "nine yards" in the expression is supposed to refer to. Bonnie Taylor-Blake, who found the 1956 example in a publication called Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, came across an intriguing earlier variant using Google News Archive. A 1921 column on the sports page of the Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald carries the headline "The Whole Six Yards of It" and gives a play-by-play description of a baseball game between two local teams. Following up on this find, Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro checked the Chronicling America database from the Library of Congress and found two examples of "the whole six yards" used in the Mount Vernon (Kentucky) Signal from 1912:
“But there is one thing sure, we dems would never have known that there was such crookedness in the Rebublican [sic] party if Ted and Taft had not got crossed at each other. Just wait boys until the fix gets to a fever heat and they will tell the whole six yards.” (May 17, 1912)
“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.” (June 28, 1912)
Shapiro, who also edits the Yale Book of Quotations, detailed the findings in his column for the Yale Alumni Magazine, and the Times followed suit with front-page coverage (linking to my previous discussion of the phrase for Word Routes). The latest research is worth all the attention, because it puts to rest many of the theories about the expression's origin (like, say, the notion that it first described the standard length of an ammo belt in World War II). On the other hand, the new evidence raises some puzzling questions about how such idioms get established in common usage.
The picture that emerges now is that "the whole N yards" originated as a vague expression referring to an inexact length before fixing on the specificity of "nine yards." It's likely that there were competing versions in oral use, which isn't uncommon with idioms and proverbs involving numbers: think of the "N-pound gorilla," where N can equal 600, 800, or 900. So why did "nine" win out? There could have been an attraction to "nine" thanks to other idioms involving the number ("cloud nine," "a stitch in time saves nine," "dressed to the nines," and so forth). Shapiro posits a kind of "numerical phrase inflation," of the type that elevated "cloud seven" to "cloud nine."
Regardless of how people fixed on "nine yards" by the 1950s, once the idiom had settled into place people began looking for real-world referents to elucidate it. In the wake of World War II, an explanation like the length of an ammo belt would have made perfect sense. But others pitched in with their own reasonable (and not-so-reasonable) conjectures, involving everything from Scottish kilts to cement mixers. This is all part of our natural proclivity to make sense out of idiomatic expressions that seem semantically murky. And I have a feeling that despite these new discoveries, and their prominent coverage in the Times, people are going to keep coming up with precise explanations for an expression that we now know wasn't very precise to begin with.
Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. 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
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