Yet Another "Whole Nine Yards"

I cannot find any comment to date on What’s the origin of “the whole nine yards”? that cites this ribald tale reported by Barry Popik. I have heard a version of the song, myself, and if, as Capt. Stratton’s account has it, the joke was common among military pilots in the 1950s, I think this is as good an explanation as we are ever likely to get.

Who is Barry Popik? Who is Captain Stratton? Why do you think this story has anything to do with the origin of the phrase? I don’t see anything more plausible about it that the dozens of other absurd explanations for the phrase’s origin.

The Master discusses Barry Popik.

The thing that gives it just a slight bit of legitimacy is that Captain Richard Stratton was a Navy pilot shot down in Vietnam in 1967. He was released in 1973. When interviewed, he used the phrase “whole nine yards.” Over at the American Dialect Society, Barry took it upon himself to contact Stratton. Stratton’s reply came back that he learned it in flight school in 1955. This fit in with our continuing idea that it was from the Military, especially Naval pilots who served in Vietnam. It’s still up in the air if his story is important as a vector in spreading the phrase.

It’s the right date (1950s), the right milieu (US military pilots), not contradicted by any known fact (if the song/joke says it’s nine yards, it’s nine yards), and, being a bawdy joke, is understandably unattested until after having become detached from its context.

It would have helped if you had mentioned who Barry Popik and Captain Stratton were in the OP. Can you give a citation for the interview just after he was released in which he used the phrase “the whole nine yards”? Can you give a citation for the interview that Popik did with Stratton in which Stratton said that he learned the phrase in flight school in the 1950’s? Has anyone tried to interview other pilots who were in flight school in the 1950’s? There should be a fair number of them still alive. I’m sorry to sound skeptical (but, hey, that’s our job here, to be skeptical), but people do occasionally forget where they heard something and attribute it in their memory to a different time and place. This sounds like a really good lead to the origin of the phrase, and we ought to be trying to find further evidence for it now.

I am unaware of anything but the matter on Barry Popik’s website and the fact that I, myself, am familiar with the song version (but only from the 1990s).

An ostensible fan of the Straight Dope who doesn’t know who Barry Popik is? For shame! :wink:

“The interesting thing that I
have noticed is a new freedom
of spirit,”.said Stratton, a soft
touch of New England twang
in his voice. “I think the long
hair, short, skirts, loud music,
fancy cars — the whole nine
yards — simply resolves itself
into a new freedom.”

"(May 13, 2005 e-mail response from Richard Stratton)

The most unique request I have received since 1973!

Etymology of “whole nine yards”?

  1. Where first heard?
    Navy School of Preflight in July 1955 at the ACRAAC (Aviation Cadet Recreation and Athletic Club - a base beer hall; NavCad’s could not use O Club). Home of salacious & scatological songs, shaggy dog stories and off beat humor.
  2. What meaning then?
    Referred to the mythical Andy McTavish’s private member and the scarf knitted by him for the birthday of his affianced, Mary Margaret MacMuff.
  3. Explained in detail?
    Yes, in great detail. One of a series of stories and songs enshrining the courtship of Andy and Mary Margaret.
  4. US or VN?
    United States - NAS Pensacola FL
  5. Aviator usage in 1973?
    The “whole nine yards” joined “the whole kit and caboodle” as meaning “all inclusive”, “containing each and every element” and “a whole without any exceptions”. It had lost all sexual reference or innuendo.

Attached for your information.


Not that I am aware of.

So Stratton in an interview in 2005 said that he learned the song in 1955. O.K., but sometimes people do misremember things after 50 years. It would still be a good idea to find some other pilot who remembers the use of the phrase from the 1950’s.

Not back to the 1950s yet but we’re getting there, slowly but surely. Here’s the latest antedate, reported in the Language Log .


You’ll be pleased to know that Bonnie is a long-time Straight Dope member.

Congrats Bonnie.

samclem, don’t tell me that Bonnie Taylor-Blake is actually… you in disguise??? :slight_smile:

I guess my copy of Doom Pussy, that I proudly displayed in my library as containing the first example in print of “the whole nine yards”, is not so special anymore.

Nope. She’s much sharper. She rarely posts, but when she does, they’re researched thoroughly.

Sorry about your 'pussy, Arnold. :slight_smile:

Er, you’ve obviously forgotten about my misguided attempts in astronauts-who-tell-‘nine-yards’-jokes research.

– Tammi Terrell

(Thanks, samclem.)

Is there a website with the current state of research into the phrase “the whole nine yards”? It would be really useful if one existed. It could include all the early citations of the phrase (up to, say, the early 1970’s) and details about where each of them occurred. It could also list all the popular theories about the origin of the phrase and an explanation, if possible, of why each of those theories was unlikely. (If anybody is about to say, "Well, there’s the Wikipedia page on “the whole nine yards,” my reply would be that that article is sloppy and not anywhere close to the amount of detail needed.) It would be useful to be able to cite such a webpage whenever a newbie starts a thread with some theory that has been knocked down many times before. Citing such a website would be simpler than having to explain at length why their theory is clearly wrong.

It would be even better if someone would write a book about the search for the origin of the phrase. Heck, I’d like to write such a book. If only I could get an advance large enough so that I can quit my job and write it.

Dave Wilton’s Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (viewable, at least in limited form, via Google Books) and Michael Quinion’s Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds [U.S. title] each have explored the debate about “the whole nine yards.” The problem with these analyses is that, since they’re in printed (book) form, they’re not easily updateable. That’s the downside with publishing in any paper-based medium.

samclem is quite knowlegdeable about where we stand with current “whole nine yards” research. I can think of no one else who could do a better job of compiling these early sightings, putting these uses in context (perhaps adding information about the users of the phrase), and reporting on various theories about the origin of the phrase than he.

Me, I think an updating of Ed’s original “whole nine yards” report is in order. Or, if an updating of the original report is not do-able, a new staff report would be a natural means of getting this information out there.

– Tammi Terrell

So update the Wikipedia article with the detail you think is needed! That’s how Wiki works: concerned people add information to make it better. :slight_smile:

No, thank you. It became clear to me when I first started consulting Wikipedia that I couldn’t allow myself to even begin rewriting articles. If I were to allow myself to start trying to fix articles, I would soon spend all my time doing it. I know my limits, and I know that I would never be satisfied and I would never be able to stop myself from messing with other articles.