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Friday, July 20, 2012

Trucks, Boats, Planes, and... Clothes?

Someone dropped by the Reference Desk the other day with this interesting etymology puzzle: Where did the phrase "the whole nine yards" originate? The Oxford English Dictionary defines "the whole nine yards" as everything or the whole lot. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms proposes three possible origins for this little phrase:
  1. A tailor needs nine yards of fabric in order to make a suit of clothes. Fancy!
  2. This refers to a particular type of ship: a three-masted vessel with each mast having three yards (horizontal support bars) to support the sails. Ship ahoy!
  3. An industrial cement mixer holds about nine cubic yards of cement in its drum. That's a lot of cement!

    Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable adds a few more possible inspirations for the phrase:
  4. The length of a hangman's noose or rope could be nine yards. Seems a bit long to me...

  5. The length of a Spitfire's ammunition belt is supposedly nine yards long. That's a lot of ammunition, but these WWII Spitfires were around at least fifteen years before this phrase started popping up.

Both sources go on to say that none of these seem to be the best fit, and that all that is really known is that the phrase originated in 1960s America. The ever resourceful has even more to say on the subject.

Ever the bibliophile, I checked our Books in Print subscription out of pure curiosity. Sure enough! There's a children's book by Dallin Malmgren, a romance by Donna Valentino, and a book of poetry by Daniel Hoffman; all are titled The Whole Nine Yards. While these books may not shed any more light on the matter (all three were published in the last thirty years), I'd be willing to bet that they'd make for interesting reading!

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