My Grandfather was born in 1900 and died in 1980, making my great Grandparents most definitely 19th century dudes.
Yes, woe is me, I couldn’t find any definitive written source for this either! Looks like I’m in good company though (I think this was a conspiracy to get the Teeming Millions whipped up into an intellectual lather…).
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have been explicit in my intentions for the post, namely:
[li]the search for the definitive written origin of the phrase may never be found. I accept that it is unusual for a phrase that may have been around for a long time not to appear anywhere, but the more slangy/pejorative/vulgar a phrase is, the less likely it would be to find its way into print. Also slang/dialect/swearing dating back a long way in a very small sub section of a community is much less likely to be committed to paper. I challenge British English speakers to find written references to the slang and dialectal phrases used by their grandparents (British, because I don’t know enough about US English - no offence!). The only one I can think of offhand that was published nationally is “Sons and Lovers” by DH Lawrence, and even that only gives a glimpse of the richness of dialect that was formerly used. The fullest written treatment of my own region’s (Lancashire) dialect (referred to as “Lanky Twang”) is in several local dictionaries/phrase books. Even this does not compare with my grandparents colourful terminology[/li][li]the reference site I linked, although not a true “reference” in the academic sense of the word, I found to be useful and it got me thinking - definitely a good thing. Thought you might all be interested.[/li][/ul]
Lastly, the suit explanation is the one I always understood to be true - hopefully acknowledging that I could not prove it, but I’d be prepared to settle for anecdotal “evidence” on this one.
Maybe we’re supposed to approach this one philosophically. Who knows? In 100 years time, Zen Buddhists all over the world might be musing on their favourite Koan - “What is the origin of the phrase: ‘The whole nine yards?’”.