Nobody knows but there are several theories.
I came to my first assignment for Blue Sky Questions fresh and excited, questing for objective truth and confident it could be found even in the fog of nonsense that is the internet.
The first question I grabbed was about “the whole nine yards”. And the briefest of searches showed me that a) there is no definite answer to this question, and b) despite this, many people are convinced there is, and will likely berate me and my idiocy for daring to write fact a) and putting it on the internet.
My quest for objective truth appeared to have fallen apart just yards (perhaps even fewer than nine) from its beginning. Still, I was determined not to be crushed by this news, and to separate the facts from the theories.
First then, the theories on the origin of the phrase. Since none of them can be verified, and none of them are particularly satisfactory, I’ve made one up myself. There will be a prize for correctly guessing it*
- The length of a belt of ammunition for a machine gun in World War Two
- The length of cloth required to make a particular garment – suggestions put forward include a man’s suit, a sari, a kilt, a burial shroud and a bridal veil
- The length of the crosspiece of a ship’s sail
- The average distance between the front door of a pub and the bar
- The length of a hangman’s noose
- The volume of a concrete mixer
- The volume of a grave
So that’s what we don’t know.
Here’s what is verifiable: One thing that is easy to confirm is what is meant by “the whole nine yards”. It essentially means to go to every conceivable length in pursuit of an aim.
Its earliest citation in print is from an Indiana newspaper called The Mitchell Commercial on 2 May 1907. It appeared in the same publication the next month, leading me to suspect that either the term was fairly well-known in Indiana at the time (since it’s not explained further in either article) or that a journalist had a bet with his editor that he could make up a phrase and get it into common usage. That’s my hope anyway.
Around this time, the phrase was also sometimes given as “the whole six yards” too.
It seems not to have been widely used outside certain areas of the American mid-west until the 1960s. Brilliantly, the main evidence provided to back up this belief is that in 1961, a long jumper named Ralph Boston set a new world record of 27 feet (or nine yards) and not a single newspaper used a “whole nine yards” pun in their headline. Surely, the argument goes, one sub-editor somewhere (or more likely all subeditors everywhere) would have jumped at that kind of wordplay opportunity were the phrase well-known.
It’s unclear exactly when the phrase became more common, but it appears that since the mid-60s it has been widely understood and people joyously used it, until the miserable 2000 film The Whole Nine Yards came along and ruined it for everyone.
*I also made up the fact there is a prize. Well done if you correctly identified the pub door one as the red herring