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Where did that phrase come from - The whole nine yards
Stan St. Clair

This expression, like many others, applies to the entirety of a thing. It is one I have been asked about on numerous occasions.

The origin and first coining of this phrase is fraught with contention, some claiming it to have been coined as early as medieval days. No reference in print appears anywhere, however, until the early 1960s. 

Nothing even in World War II (the length of a belt of ammo for a machine gun) as some have also claimed. The very first actual citation appears in a short story by Robert Wegner titled, “Man on the Thresh-hold” printed in an issue of a quarterly literary journal, Michigan’s Voices, in 1962. Here is the extensive sentence, word for word:

“Marjorie’s fault, and if all this howling and yelling up and down through the furnace pipes didn’t stop soon they’d have the kids awake and then we can all take positions at one of the vents and bellow at each other — great sport, real civilized living in the modern urban home — then the dog would catch on and go ki-yi-yi-ing from one to the other of the shouting pyjama clad participants mad, mad, mad, the consequences of the house, home, kids, respectability, status as a college professor and the whole nine yards, as a brush salesman who came by the house was fond of saying, the whole damn nine yards and Marjorie with her credulous countenance which allowed him to tell her with a perfectly straight face — and she would believe him, not knowing the difference, not seeing the point, not recognizing the irony and it was this dimensional lack that hurt, her inability to see more than two converging or conflicting planes at a time — tell her it was a left-handed screw driver he needed.”  

After this, the phrase gained popularity and came to mean what we know today. Some say this refers to nine cubic yards, the capacity of concrete trucks (or coal trucks or garbage trucks). Some say it is the nine yards of material that tailors use to make a top-quality suit or a kilt or kimono. 

Others have claimed that the yards are the spars of sailing ships, saying that ships can continue to change direction as long as new sails are unfurled, culminating with the final ninth sail. 

It is also believed by some to be of a mystical significance relating to the number nine. 

Still others have said that it refers to the amount of dirt in a rich man’s burial plot or the yards in football, none of which “hold any water.” There are a number of other totally speculative claims, but you get the point.

Whatever the hidden meaning, a movie with this phrase as its title was released in 2000, starring Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry, about “a hit man with a heart.”


If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at stan@stclair.net.