Nice conversation guys, all the above can be proved and unproved…the Real Deal is…no recorded evidence. And most stuff is not measured in yards, except fabric, as much as I love and admire our military, and as many sayings as they are crafty enough to coin, no recordings ever came from this one including the fact that ammo belts are in fact all different lengths…Check with Scotland…you almost had it with a “to the Hilt” comment, of course a hilt is a full gore with a sword or knife, and the nine yards was not familiar with most commoners as it refers to and still does, A KILT, not an American made but authentic, personal wrap, full body Kilt. I am positive (just as anyone else with their guess). Have a Happy Holiday
Welcome to The Straight Dope, fishinclipper! For future reference(since so many of Cecil’s columns are discussed here), you should try to provide a link to the particular column you are referencing, like so.
I was going to try to post links to all the threads we’ve had about this in the past, but it’s a bit daunting. This is, shall we say, one of the Great Questions of the SDMB.
Instead, I’ll just give you the most recent 5 threads. The fifth one has an excellent set of links in the second post to many more discussions here.
As of now, I believe the earliest reference in print of this phrase is the one discovered by our own samclem, which is referenced in the OP of the third link above. It is from 1964, which makes the kilt theory implausible.
Sam’s discovery includes not just the phrase in print, but a definition. It is stated to be space-program slang for a line-by-line report on a project.
Although samclem’s 1964 find is still, to my mind, the most significant and useful pre-1966 antedating, it bears noting that Steven Goranson recently found a usage from the fall of 1962 that now stands as the earliest (momentarily, at least) appearance of “the whole nine yards.” In a recent entry for his blog at The New York Times, Fred Shapiro summarizes what we have (and haven’t) learned from these sightings from the 1960s.
Ben Zimmer’s analysis for Visual Thesaurus is also helpful.
A comment on those two articles… both authors refer to the brush salesman as using the quote as his personal obscure term. Fred Shapiro says
Ben Zimmer says
Both authors appear to miss something on that page. That very sentence contains two instances of the phrase, “the whole nine yards”. The second is the brush salesman’s specific version that inserts the word “damn”, but the first use is dropped in as a common expression that everyone should know. That narrator is making the point of describing a variant he heard and found interesting, but he does it after using the phrase conventionally.
There is no conflict between the Car Life and Michigan’s Voices uses, and there is no reason to think that a brush salesman is the origin of the quote.
I went through the rest of Fred Shapiro’s quote origins columns. Some of them were fun, but should a friend take him aside as tell him to read the older columns before he posts a new one? An amazing and frankly embarrassing number of questions are simply repeated and reanswered.
What Tammi doesn’t tell you is that she was the first to beat my lucky 1964 find, by doing some hard work(and follow-up work] to take it back to 1962.
And yet, the search must go earlier.
You guys love this, don’t you?
I had no idea Lexis/Nexis had an office a mere 18.5 miles from my home. And a main office slightly further, but with expensive parking.
Nah, samclem, my find is attributable to good timing: I was lucky enough to stumble upon that sighting in Google Books before you and Goranson found it. And the only hard work (on my part) involved enlisting the help of a librarian to track down the relevant issue of Car Life. (“Follow-up work” entailed paying the $5 interlibrary loan fee.)
The stream-of-consciousness style makes this hard to say conclusively. If it was as you describe, one would expect the word “or” in there somewhere - “the whole nine yards, or, as the Fuller Brush salesman was fond of saying, the whole damn nine yards.” Now, it could be that the author left out the “or”, and given the writing style, that’s distinctly possible. But neither is the other analysis obviously incorrect – the “as the salesman says” could just be a parenthetical inserted into his full saying: “the whole nine yards, the whole damn nine yards”.
I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that you’re not indisputably right. =)
No one, on this Board, is EVER indisputably right.
This is unarguably true.
Which makes it demonstrably false.
A belt of fifty caliber machine gun ammunition is twenty-seven feet long.
In a 1941 interview with Life Magazine, Flying Tiger ace Tex Hill, in describing how he shot down a japanese aircraft, stated, “I gave him the whole damn nine yards.”
The interview was printed and the quote was repeated so often that a mere 69 years later people have forgotten where it came from.
Etymology has long been a hobby of mine and I have had the good fortune to have met a couple of the original Flying Tigers - a rare combination that made me simply HAVE TO respond to this thread!
Do you have some documentation for that?
I don’t think anyone has ever produced a milspec to support this claim.
From the total negativity of my Google searches, not only did no such quote ever appear in Life magazine by anyone, let alone Tex Hill, but far from being “repeated so often” you are the first person in all of humanity to suggest it.
Nothing leads to any previous association of Tex Hill being quoted in Life magazine, Tex Hill and the whole nine yards, or Life magazine and the whole nine yards. Life did do several stories on the Flying Tigers, but the earliest appears to be in the March 30, 1942 issue.
You can call up that issue through Google Books. Neither the phrase “whole nine years” nor anything conceivably mistakable for it appears. Pictures show David Lee “Tex” Hill, but he is given no lines and no quotes. There is nothing on ammo belts. Nobody is allowed to tell stories about shooting down Japanese.
Teddy White has a report accompanying the Flying Tigers on a battle mission in the Nov. 9, 1942 issue. If there ever was a spot for a whole nine yards quote, this is it. But it ain’t. Tex Hill is mentioned and again gets no words attributed to him.
A short article about Flying Tigers Airways appeared in the Mar 11, 1946 issue. It looked at some vets who were putting a civilian company together. Nothing useful for our purposes appears.
And that’s it, except for a letter to editor and a short paragraph length mention here and there. Nothing, nothing, and nothing.
I tried looking for it in other contemporary magazines by a variety of search terms. More nothing.
Sounds to me like standard folk etymology with a source that before the internet would be hard to track down. I’m not saying it’s impossible. Maybe that issue isn’t in the Google database or didn’t get scanned properly. But then it would be up to you to find it and show us the money.
Didn’t Barry Popik solve this one? That it was the punchline to a dirty joke or baudy poem popular among Air Force service men in the 50s concerning a Scotsmen and the size of his scarf-slash-endowment? Here’s the email he posted on his website:
And the joke itself:
I find the dirty joke explanation thoroughly convincing because it explains how the phrase could get so widely disseminated while leaving hardly a trace of contemporary written attestations.
Sure, maybe there’s still more to the story. Perhaps the McTavish joke was playing on a pre-existing “whole nine yards” phrase and merely presenting it in a new comical situation. Or maybe Stratton’s memory is wrong and the McTavish joke came about much later, after the “whole nine yards” phrase was already getting traction.
Still, there seems to be enough here to make it the default hypothesis, for now.
I find the joke explanation implausible, simply because jokes are mutable.
Details such as length change with every telling unless they are integral to the humour. So, for example, a joke that relies on a pun between “sex” and “six” will retain that specific number. In sharp contrast, the joke about a tiny pianist commonly involves everything from 8 inches to 14 inches.
That’s because the length in that joke, and the scarf joke, aren’t really important. Any number that implies a larger than usual phallus works equally. So at every re-telling the person relating the joke is going to vary the number. Unless “the whole nine yards” already had some significance, the next teller would be prone to changing it to “the whole 8 yards” or even “the whole 20 feet”. And once that happens the “whole nine yards” ceases to be the punchline.
I’ll be more prone to believing it if you can name single joke, dirty or otherwise, where the number has remained immutable over multiple tellings when that specific number wasn’t integral to the humour.