The Whole Nine Yards

1855, 1942 explores the history and origin
of common words and phrases

This is an interesting one.

And now it’s even more interesting!
See my First Mention update for 1942 at the bottom of this article.
The phrase, the whole nine yards, has become solidly mainstream in the past few decades, but no one has any idea what it really means.

The whole nine yards of what, exactly? Yards of cloth? Yards on a football field? Cubic yards needed to dig a grave (Yep! That’s what some folks think).

Whatever type of yards are meant, there seems to be general agreement that the phrase took root in the military. The earliest modern use of the phrase dates back to 1964, in a newspaper article about the lingo used by US “rocket men”, Talking Hip in the Space Age. In addition to “bubble suit”, “brain bucket”, and “panic rack”, the article introduces readers to “the whole nine yards”.

Here’s an excerpt from the Tucson Daily Citizen of April 25, 1964..

You caught that last sentence, right? “Give ’em the whole nine yards…” But the whole nine yards of what…?

I have a theory. I’m not saying it’s a good theory, but hear me out.

The FirstMention of the phrase, the whole nine yards, dates back to 1855, in a long-but-humorous story that was repeated in at least four newspapers of the day (and probably more…four is all I found).

The story, “The Judge’s Big Shirt”, tells the tale of a judge visiting a friend in another city, but travelling light, without much luggage. When the visiting judge is invited to a dinner party, he has no shirt appropriate to the occasion, so his friend offers to have one tailor-made for him in time for the party.

The friend, known only as “C” in the story, is a practical joker. He wants to teach the judge a lesson for coming unprepared, so asks the tailor to use nine yards of cloth — normally enough for three shirts — and make a single shirt from it. The results are predictable.

Here’s how it appeared in the March 31, 1855 Evergreen City Times, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

There you have it…the whole nine yards into one shirt.

Here’s a link to the full story, in case you’re so inclined.

As I mentioned, this was a popular story, appearing in numerous papers across several states.

It’s not hard to imagine the story being picked up and told, and retold, at parties, and around the dinner table. It may well have become a “family favorite” in more than one household.

Passed along from one generation to the next, the story was pared down, eventually becoming just a one-liner…the whole nine yards. Some young buck took it into the military with him, where the phrase stuck.

That’s my theory. OK…my hypothesis. OK, OK…my wild-assed guess.

But still, there’s no denying a FirstMention from 1855.

New source, new theory, new possible First Mention.

The date is Thursday, April 23, 1942. The setting is the hearing room of the U.S. Senate Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program, the Honorable Senator Harry S. Truman presiding.

The witness is Admiral Emory Land, testifying about the nation’s ability to manufacture Liberty Ships — merchant marine cargo vessels critical to the nation’s supply lines during World War II.

Although the Liberty Ships were built in 18 shipyards around the country, the 1942 hearings focused on the nine shipyards that were then in active production.

At one point, committee-member Senator Harold Burton has an exchange with Admiral Land and Land’s second-in-command, Admiral Vickery. They are disussing the high and low production scores assigned to each shipyard…

And there you have it. The 1942 First Mention (in modern times, anyway) of the whole nine yards is a reference to nine shipyards.
It’s an oddly-worded construction (wouldn’t you just say: all nine yards?), but when you’re the G*d-damned Admiral, you can say what you want, and you best believe the phrase is going to stick.
So that’s my new theory.
What do you think? Email your comments david-at-firstmention-dot-com.