Dear Word Detective: I became aware of the expression “the whole nine yards” in about 1945. I had also had some training in biology and understood that the human intestinal tract is about 27 feet long. I have long thought that “to give/go the whole nine yards” meant to give (it) everything you have. — Charley.
Oh boy, it’s that question again. I realize that your letter is more of a comment on or correction to my previous columns on this topic, but the origin of “the whole nine yards,” an American slang phrase meaning “the whole thing” or “everything,” is the Count Dracula of popular etymology topics. It swoops in and consumes the energies of anyone who dares to face it, and, worse than Dracula, it can’t be killed, not even with the wooden stake of “Nobody knows for sure.” (Just kidding, of course. I wouldn’t really want anyone to give up the chase.)
Two things bear mentioning at the outset. Although “the whole nine yards” has never been found in print earlier than the 1960s, it’s far from impossible that you heard it circa 1945. Oral use of slang always precedes its appearance in print, often by decades or more. Secondly, if one were to stretch out the human large and small intestines (don’t try this at home, kids), together they would indeed measure in the ballpark of 27 feet, i.e., nine yards.
There have been about as many origins suggested for “the whole nine yards” as there have been vampire movies, from the amount of cloth needed for a wedding dress, a burial shroud, a man’s three-piece suit or a Scotsman’s kilt, to the capacity of a cement mixer, to the “yards,” or spars, utilized by a tall ship under full sail. My favorite theory has always been the one tying the phrase to the length of fighter plane machine gun belts in World War II. To fire your entire supply of ammunition at an enemy plane would certainly fit the modern “give it everything you’ve got” sense of “to go the whole nine yards.”
But all of these theories have fatal problems. As I said, the phrase has never been found in print before the 1960s, and print citations are the sine qua non of etymology; personal memory, unfortunately, does not count. The first date a word or phrase appears in print is also an important clue to its real origin. It is very unlikely that a phrase referring to 18th century sailing ships, for instance, would not appear in print before the mid-20th century, or that a phrase supposedly common among World War II fighter pilots would be completely absent (rats!) from accounts of that very well-documented war. Many of these theories (e.g., the capacity of cement mixers, cloth needed for a suit) are also simply factually wrong. And even if, as in your intestine clue, a theory does involve something actually nine yards long, a logical connection, supported by a print citation that both involves intestines and uses the phrase in something close to its current sense of “the whole shebang,” would be needed to seal the deal.
So the bad news is that “the whole nine yards” must still be counted as “origin unknown.” The good news is that, thanks to the fearless and peerless vampire hunters of the American Dialect Society (ADS), we may be getting a bit closer to the answer. Until 2009, the earliest known print citations for “the whole nine yards” came from the late 1960s, specifically connected to the US military in the Vietnam War. Since then, ADS members have unearthed three earlier printed examples, two from 1962 (from a literary journal and a car magazine) and one from a 1964 article about the US space program, which may be especially significant given the later military use of the phrase. Interestingly, all three examples use “the whole nine yards” in reference to a long list of items, rather than “nine yards” of any one thing. The newspaper article on the space program, for instance, offers a glossary of the lingo of participants, including “Give ’em the whole nine yards means an item-by-item report on any project.”
So the mystery of “the whole nine yards” remains unsolved, but as long as new clues keep popping up, the hunt is still afoot.