In Stephen E. Ambrose’s ‘‘the Wild Blue’’ 2001, It Is Mentioned As The 50 Cal. Ammo Belt Of Gunners On The B-24 Liberator. ‘‘i Fired The Whole Nine Yards’’

Welcome to the SDMB, Frank.

A link to the column is appreciated. Providing one can be as simple as pasting the URL into your post, making sure to leave a blank space on either side of it. Like so: www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_252.html

After reading Cecil’s column, the wiki article puts everything in perspective.

Apparently the earliest mentions are from 1967, and are connected with the armed forces. Further, it also seems that the phrase was unknown prior to 1961. The evidence for the latter assertion is a lack of puns that year by sports journalists reporting on a world-record-setting 27 foot long jump.

Knowing sports journalists, I think we can definately say that the expression did not originate with old-time suits, weddings, department stores, or the Second World War.

However, it does seem it likely originated in the Vietnam War. From watching choppers shooting up the jungle on the History channel, it even seems they had more opportunities to say such things.

The phrase probably got falsely attributed to WWII by the troops who used it to give it more tradition. Or, perhaps the phrase did indeed originate then, but remained in small circulation until Vietnam.

Also, I’ll bet cloth really did come in 9-yard ribbons, and many (especially housewives) might have assumed the clothing industry to be the source. When making one of those huge prom dresses for their daughters, they might have even gone the whole nine yards so the girl would kill at the dance. (without reloading)

The phrase is unknown prior to 1967, not 1961. I absolutely hate throwing in the “sportswriters didn’t use it in 1961” negative evidence.

Wth are you talking about, you have to be a fool to think that just because something wasn’t in print, it wasn’t used. We’re not hunting down the point at which it turned into a fad, we’re looking for the origin. If you don’t like the 1961 evidence, that’s fine (although I’m pretty fond of it myself*). Say you don’t think we can tell when it began. But to claim that we know for sure just because we found a cite… that’s ridiculous. (Although I guess for more modern phrases, such as those from the 60s, we can expect the first discovered cite to appear sooner.)

*sports writers don’t have anything to do except sit around thinking of puns, and if not one penned the headline “Ralph Boston Goes the Whole Nine Yards”… that’s pretty strong evidence. Particularly since even if nine out of ten people wouldn’t understand the joke, the writer could still include it because it makes complete sense either way.

er, I think I might have misunderstood you. You might have meant “the status of the phrase is unknown to us”, not “the phrase [was] unknown [to them] prior to 1967.” If so, I apologize.

What samclem means is that the first citation that anyone has found (and, yes, there has been an immense amount of work to find a previous citation) was in 1967, in the novel Doom Pussy by Elaine Shepard, which is about the Vietnam War U.S. Air Force. The fact that no sportswriters used the pun in 1961 for a 27-foot jump at most means that the phrase, if it existed, was not known among sportswriters. This does not mean that nobody was using the phrase. Another thing that should be noted is that the earliest citations of the phrase were not of the form “to give them the whole nine yards” or “to go the whole nine yards.” In the earliest citations, it was just that something was said to be “the whole nine yards.” None of the earliest uses of the phrase explain it as being nine yards of some particular substance. In any case, Stephen Ambrose is a historian, not an etymologist, and is not particularly to be trusted on the etymology of this phrase.

My great uncle, a World War I flying ace (no, really), used to say that it stood for the amount of ammunition in machine guns mounted on biplanes used in dogfights.

He told me this story when quite elderly and passed away in 1990. I don’t know if he was right.

Forgot to add that my great-uncle’s name was Douglas Campbell, so you can check to confirm that at least he really was a WWI ace. Can’t vouch for the rest of the story.

These accounts are tempting, but few can accept the idea that a phrase would take 50 years to make its way into print. There is also the point that (so far as I have heard) no evidence exists that 27’ was a standard length for any ammunition belt, in either WW-I or -II.

He was the first American trained ace(shot down five German planes). Two other American pilots were trained by the Lafayette Escadrille and accomplished this feat.

With all of the books, memoirs, etc. written about WWII not showing the phrase, it’s even harder to accept that it was used in WWI.

But cool he’s your great uncle. :slight_smile: