View Full Version : "the whole 9 yards revisited"

05-11-2001, 08:20 PM
Hi all, I've just been looking at an old discussion on the origin of the expression "the whole 9 yards". Various explanations have been offered, none of which I find convincing. I hereby offer another for peer review.

The "whole 9 yards" refers to the standard 27foot 50cal ammunition belt used in USAF WWII fighter aircraft. Usage may have originally been along the lines of " I lined him up and gave him the whole nine yards".

Now shoot me down.

Arnold Winkelried
05-11-2001, 08:35 PM
Welcome to the SDMB, and thank you for posting your comment.

Please include a link to Cecil's column if it's on the straight dope web site. To include a link, it can be as simple as including the web page location in your post (make sure there is a space before and after the text of the URL).

Cecil's column can be found on-line at this link:
What's the origin of "the whole nine yards"? (http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_252.html)

The column (including Slug Signorino's illustration) can also be found on pages 252-257 of Cecil Adams’ book «More of the Straight Dope (http://www.straightdope.com/otheroutlets/books.html)».

moderator, «Comments on Cecil's Columns (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/forumdisplay.php?forumid=1)»

[Edited by Arnold Winkelried on 05-11-2001 at 08:37 PM]

Arnold Winkelried
05-11-2001, 08:38 PM
Yet another thread to add to my collection!

Previous discussions on the subject (most recent first):

The whole nine yards (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=63008)

The Whole Nine Yards (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=50725)

The whole 9 yards..... (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=29921)

The whole nine yards (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=2905)

the whole nine yards (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=1734)

yards, and nine of them ... (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=1379)

The Whole Nine Yards Explanation (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=573)

05-11-2001, 08:44 PM
rubber Just in case you are overwhelmed by Arnold's links, all anyone requires is that you provide us with a cite in print. That shouldn't be so hard, should it?

Bang, Bang!

Arnold Winkelried
05-11-2001, 08:46 PM
Finally, if we look at the oldest thread in my list above (the one at the bottom), we can see the wise words of noted SDMB sages and WorldWar II cognoscenti tomndebb and warriner, which I will take the liberty of reposting here:

tomndebb says
9 yards is 324 inches. The waist gunners of U.S. bombers were always armed with .50 caliber weapons (excepting a few Catalinas and a few modified YB-40's). They were routinely provided 1,000 rounds of ammo. 1,000 time 1/2 inch (ignoring the extra width for the casing and the links or earlier webs) is 500 inches--rather more than 324.

The implied phrase (that you did not exactly use, but that we have seen frequently) that shooting at a specific enemy resulted in "giving him the whole nine yards" would never have been uttered by any gunner who did not want to be reamed thoroughly by the rest of the crew: shooting your entire load at a single plane is wasteful and a sign of really bad shooting skills.

warriner replies

Really? Everything I have found says that the waist gunners of the B-17 had 400 rounds. See the specs here for the B-17E: http://www.fscwv.edu/users/rheffner/b17/b1708.html

I don't think the 400 rounds was in a continous belt either. ...

Beside the magazines attached to the guns themselves you can see three other cases of ammunition which I assume are reloads for the guns. The boxes are labelled as .50 cal but the capacity is difficult to read. It looks like 200 something to me.

In any event, no bomber gunner would get the chance to empty an entire belt at a fighter. At best they could count on a snap shots of a second or two.

05-11-2001, 09:21 PM
Since we are into it, here's my take on what is one of the top 10 mysteries in etymology.

The phrase first is cited in print in 1966 in Doom Pussy, a book by war correspondent Elaine Shepard. Everyone seems to sidestep the source. She wrote a book about air operations by the US over North Vietnam, which, in most opinions, was mostly fictional. But she obviously(to me) got the phrase from the pilots who were part of this operation.

Given that most WWII slang is extremely available in print, it is almost positive that this phrase came from our pilots in early VietNam action. Just exactly where they got it is open to conjecture. But it is almost a certainty that they didn't hear it from their WWII parents.

Remember, just find that cite in print. Prior to 1966.

05-11-2001, 09:33 PM
<hijack> Old sailing ships had yard arms, if a ship had 9. I am wondering just what they are, what they did? <end hijack>

Bad grammer, syntax sorry.

05-11-2001, 09:42 PM

Find that phrase in print prior to 1966. You'll be a hero!

05-12-2001, 12:20 AM
I'm going to rent Flying Tigers(1942), because I could have sworn I heard John Wayne utter the line in it.

05-12-2001, 12:23 AM
I hadn't realised that this subject was so regularly revisited ! I am particularly unconvinced by the Vietnam origin idea as I served there myself, and have no recollection of the phrase being used in any special contemporary context. I will admit that the passage of time may have blurred recollection, but I am fairly sure I had heard the phrase in use during my youth in the late 50's and 60's before my military service. The B17 ammo belt idea is a variation on my original post. I believe that if the phrase is descriptive of WWII ammunition it is for fighter aircraft like the P51 and P47, not bombers, the maximum length of the belt being dictated by the capacity of the ammunition bay in the wing. Final comment, ammunition belts can be joined together with a simple clip so the total ammunition carried in a B17 would have no bearing on the original issue length of an individual belt.

Rube E. Tewesday
05-12-2001, 01:00 PM
I agree with Samclem's dubiousness about a WWII origin, given how many books were written at the time, and how much genuine slang was recorded in them. Also, in my experience, there are still lots of WWII vets around, many of whom amuse themselves on the Internet. I don't ever recall in any of these discussions (and admittedly, I haven't revisited all of the zillions of threads)an instance of one of those vets coming forward to say "Oh yeah, I flew P-47s when I was a kid, and we used the expression when we'd used up all our ammo."

For what it's worth (not much), I don't recall hearing the expression before the 80's, then all of a sudden, it seemed like I was hearing it all the time. Whenever it originated, it seems to me that it had a long subterranean period, then took off.

Seeing how difficult it is to answer this question gives a little bit of insight into why there are so many unanswered questions and exploded theories in history.

05-12-2001, 11:04 PM
Here is what could be a definitive answer. The quoted gentleman first heard it in the Korean war from ex WWII pilots.

I quote one Frank Pierce : "I know it authoritatively, having served in the military. I first heard it during the Korean War from Navy pilots who flew F6F Hellcats in the Pacific Theater. The standard ammo belt for the fixed fifty-caliber machine guns used on fighter aircraft were, when loaded, 27 feet in length, or of course, nine yards. When you met a Jap at 10,000 feet and really spashed him, you gave him the "whole nine yards" of belt ammo. It was common bragging."

If anyone wants to ask him more his email is, fpierce@erols.com

05-12-2001, 11:42 PM
Not unless he has something dated from that period that contains that phrase.

05-12-2001, 11:51 PM
I'm sure that Frank Pierce is a nice person. He even published a book about his recollections of WWII as a kid in Maryland. I have no doubt that he served in Korea. But if "it was common bragging" that you gave a "Jap" the whole nine yards, it would have been available in print before 1966. Military slang gets put into print in this century faster and is more available than any other source of slang.

And a generation of flyers from Korea would have memories of it being a common expression. But, as far as I know, they don't. Just Frank.

05-14-2001, 12:12 PM
Here we go again.

I propose that we just take a vote, and whichever of the explanations forwarded so far wins will be decreed as the actual explanation, and written into the history books just like it was always there. I think the ammo belts are in the lead, with sails right behind and kilt/suit cloth bringing up the rear (pun intended).

If you look at the first link in Arnold's list, we have a promising lead. We need someone who is an expert in mid-1800's English history or Disraeli to help narrow the search for documented proof.

Hoping bwanasimba's new little one has arrived and is healthy and happy.

05-15-2001, 11:49 PM
Originally posted by Rocket
I think the ammo belts are in the lead, with sails right behind and kilt/suit cloth bringing up the rear (pun intended).

Ohh... I don't think we can neglect concrete mixers -- they do seem to be oft cited as the origin of the phrase. :)

A quick web search turned up this page, the alt.quotations FAQ (http://www.mindspring.com/~samhobbs/alt-quotations/quotations.html#wholenineyards), which has a nice list of 31 things that the whole nine yards isn't. Perhaps this could be used as the list of vote-able meanings.

05-16-2001, 10:28 AM
I had a couple of guys last week assure me it most definitely came from WWII ammo belts. What am I supposed to say to that? *shrug*

Rube E. Tewesday
05-16-2001, 04:36 PM
Irishman, I'd ask them what branch of the military they fought in. I come back to the point I made before -- why don't I ever see this slang attested to by WWII vets? Why is it always someone who heard it from a vet, or who heard it from someone who heard it from a vet?

05-16-2001, 09:36 PM
I have done a little research with the Imperial War Museum in England and the Australian National War Memorial (I am in Australia, and obviously have no life !). Neither can shed any light on the expression, but I have established the following with absolute veracity.

The P51 was armed with six 50cal Brownings, mounted in the wings. These six guns were identical in all respects but one. The inboard gun on each wing was designated 'primary' and the outer pair 'secondary' the difference being the quantity of ammunition carried for each gun. Due to the tapered wing reducing in thickness from root to tip the ammunition bays for the outer guns were smaller in capacity. The primary bay contained 400 rounds, the outer or secondary bays 270 rounds each. The rate-of-fire was 12 rounds per/sec, giving a duration for each gun of 33.3 secs (primary) and 22.5 secs (secondary) before all ammunition was exhausted.

I could not get a definitive answer as to belt length but, assuming no space at all between rounds, we have a primary belt length of 200 inches or 16.5 feet. If we allow half a diameter between rounds we get about 8.3 additional feet, a total of about 25 feet. I can be seen that it only requires a small adjustment of the assumed inter-round spacing to arrive at ahem, 27 feet or 9 yards.

I have no personal experience of 50 cal ammunition belts, I do however have more experience than I would really have liked with 7.62mm ammunition belts. By my (admittedly time dimmed) recollection, an assumption of approximately half a diameter between rounds is not unreasonable.

I therefore conclude that, while not constituting proof of any kind, the above facts do not disprove the "ammo belt theory" as the origin of "the whole nine yards".

One final thought, it seems that a P51 pilot in combat would be down to just two guns after only 22.5 seconds of fire. Beyond that point he would require three times the fire duration to do the same amount of damage. I for one can see why he might feel the need to go "the whole nine yards".

05-17-2001, 12:00 AM
In my last post I referred to the "inter-round spacing".

By this term I refer to the distance between parallel lines drawn through the longitudinal centres of two adjacent rounds. This distance is dictated by two factors.

1. Maximum diameter of the cartridge case. Always greater than the round itself, and in the case of the M8 50cal round used in WWII, significantly greater due to the 'necked down' design of the cartridge case.

2. The gap between two adjacent cartridge cases. The Browning 50cal gun utilised a 'disintegrating belt' based on metal clips between each round that flew apart as the round was chambered. This clip dictated a small gap between rounds.

New information - The following link is to a photograph of a WWII armorer carrying 50cal ammunition belts. Note the spacing between rounds, looks about half a round diameter/ per round to me.

Also note that the individual belts are much shorter than 27feet, this is NOT significant since disintegrating type belts are joined in seconds with a spring clip until the desired length is achieved. This length being dictated by the capacity of the ammunition bay or box. It makes sense that this joining take place as the belts are loaded into the aircraft, not before. Twenty seven feet of 50cal would be difficult to handle and VERY heavy indeed.


Northern Piper
05-17-2001, 12:51 AM
RubberEntropy, I don't doubt your researches into the length of the belts - it shows a dedication to stamping out ignorance that is welcomed here at SDMB. :D

However, there is that old phrase "correlation is not causation." Even if the length of the belts of ammo is about 9 yards, you still have to show that the phrase actually dated to WWII, as others have commented. Anecdotal evidence, like "I heard it from a friend" won't cut it. :(

At any rate, welcome to the Straight Dope. :cool:

05-17-2001, 01:02 AM
Northern Piper, I make no claim to having found proof of any kind. In the absence of such proof however, the simple application of 'Occams Razor' must surely push this particular hypothesis a little further up the order of probability.

05-17-2001, 02:52 AM
Originally posted by Rocket
Hoping bwanasimba's new little one has arrived and is healthy and happy. Thanks Rocket. We had a boy last week, Gabriel, brother to Josephine. Ten fingers and ten toes, all present and correct. Both kids are well, but Mum and Dad are looking like the living dead.

Hmm. I am still up for a day rooting around in the musty tomes of Parliament to see if we can find this phrase in print in Hansard. My first bet would be to concentrate on the period 1842 - 1849, based on your research in the thread started by RoseGryphn mentioned above. However, I shudder to think how much paper I'd have to cover unless we can track someone down who knows more about the specific period. I'll contact some people who know about English history and see if we can't get someone down there before too long.

06-04-2001, 12:53 PM
Congrats to bwanasimba on Gabriel. My wife and I had our first (Kimberly) 11 months ago, and we haven't caught up on our sleep yet.

Now back to the "nine yards";

I feel I must point out that the basic theory behind the ammo belts being the origin of the phrase appears to me to be flawed. Once again, the phrase is understood to mean "everything", or "the entire effort". If you translate this into the context of airplane ammunition, it doesn't seem to make sense. Here are some examples/scenarios to support my point.

Pilot returns to base and brags, "I gave them the whole nine yards". He's just stated that he used up all of his ammunition in engaging the enemy forces. What kind of warrior would he be if he didn't use all of his ammunition? My point in this case is, he's stating the obvious, and that doesn't fit with the spirit of the phrase.

Pilot returns to base and states, "I gave him the whole nine yards". What self-respecting pilot is going to admit to his peers that he used all his ammunition engaging one enemy target. In addition, with this scenario, it seems to me that the engagement would have to have been somewhat lengthy in the case if a dogfight, to use up all of the ammunition on a single foe. It's my understanding that a pilot's most vulnerable when their tailing an enemy plane, and the idea is to take a quick shot and break-off, to protect one's own tail.

Or, the the case of a ground target, again the statement is redundant (hey guys, I just used up all my ammunition strafing that airfield!) DUH!

It seems more likely that pilots would be bragging about their minimal use of ammunition to destroy a target. Hence the phrase "killed two birds with one stone", would be more appropriate.

06-05-2001, 05:06 AM
I must comment on, "it seems to me that the engagement would have to have been somewhat lengthy in the case of a dogfight, to use up all of the ammunition on a single foe".

"somewhat lengthy" is only about 30seconds of fire ! There are many accounts of prolonged combats where one or other adversary disengaged and fled due to lack of ammunition. The biography of ANY surviving WWII pilot, of any nationality, will yield such.

An outstanding WWII example would be the British 'Short Sunderland' flying boat which fought no less than six Junkers JU88's in a combat lasting over an hour until the surviving Germans had used up all their ammunition and went home. Or in WWI, a Major Barker who, though badly wounded, fought 11 Fokker DVII's to a standstill, winning the Victoria Cross for his efforts.

Many air combats that were not simply hit-and-run, involved a 'turning fight', where the adversaries flew an ever tightening circle attempting to get on the opponents tail. The advantage often shifed from one protagonist to the other, firing short bursts when the opportunity presented itself until one went down or broke off the combat.

I therefore believe a more likely emphasis, probably accompanied by the waving of arms in the mess, would have the expression meaning " I went all the way, fought him (them) to the bitter end, until all my ammo was gone, the whole nine yards, a TOTAL effort.

06-05-2001, 07:47 AM
I was watching Squawk Box on CNBC this morning, and the host mentioned the phrase "the whole nine yards". He hoped someone would e-mail him with the origin! :)

06-05-2001, 11:45 AM
Thanks for the input on the length of time required to fire nine yards of ammunition. While 30 seconds of fire seems short, I submit that that is somewhat lengthy in the context of an air battle, considering the fire is typically in short bursts.

The point I was trying to make, and I believe you have reinforced is that the phrase "I gave them/him the whole nine yards" sort of loses it's punch when you consider;
(a) Pilots regularly used up their ammunition in battle (hence stating the obvious);
and (b) if they used all of their ammunition (whether on (1)a single foe or (2)a series of targets), they're either saying (1) I'm a pretty bad shot, or (2) I used all my ammunition (like I'm supposed to, again stating the obvious).

Pilots were not going to come back after a battle and say I saved some ammunition for my next time up. It seems to me they would have to be reloaded with a full "clip" every time they landed. If they had leftover unfired ammunition, it would have to be removed to load another "nine yards", since that has been claimed as the capacity. Hence they would regularly use up their ammo, so that the ground crew couldn't be overheard saying "that dumbass pilot, he left 3 and a half yards of ammunition in here".

I will be swayed by documented references to the phase from WWII however. Here's to discussion/debate.

06-05-2001, 07:07 PM
I will be swayed by documented references to the phase from WWII however. Here's to discussion/debate. Sheesh! I'll be swayed by a quote from the Korean War! I'll even be swayed with a quote from Viet Nam before 1967!

06-05-2001, 07:46 PM
It occurs to me that the 30sec of fire may not be the significant number.

We have established,(see my earlier post), that a P51 pilot had only 22.5 seconds of fire from all six guns. Beyond that point he had a further 10 seconds of fire from 2 guns only.

Fighting with just 2 guns would put him at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps the fact that these last 2 guns were the only ones with 9 yards of ammunition may explain the significance of the phrase to fellow pilots.

I must emphasise that I make no claim that the aviation explanation is definitive. I too will only be convinced by a contemporary printed reference. As to probability, the established facts concerning ammunition belt length do not disprove this explanation.