“colorful etymologies...are almost always wrong".
January 15, 2013 1:26 PM   Subscribe

The Whole Nine Yards: Seeking a Phrase’s Origin
When people talk about “the whole nine yards,” just what are they talking about? For decades the answer to that question has been the Bigfoot of word origins...But now two researchers using high-powered database search tools have delivered a confident “none of the above,” supported by a surprise twist: Before we were going the whole nine yards, it turns out, we were only going six.
(SLNYT)
posted by anazgnos (53 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
And....they still don't know the origin of the phrase. Interesting story dismissing previous held beliefs, but a bit of a let down at the end.
posted by Atreides at 1:41 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


previously.
posted by anewnadir at 1:43 PM on January 15, 2013


The Historical Dictionary of American Slang then pushed it back to 1967, with a citation from “The Doom Pussy,” Elaine Shepard’s novel about Air Force pilots in the Vietnam War.

That is a naughty name.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


What's wrong with Elaine Shepard?
posted by shothotbot at 1:49 PM on January 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


Great last line, though.

“People are drawn to colorful etymologies,” Mr. Shapiro said. “But they are almost always wrong.”

Literally the only thing I remember from sixth-grade algebra was when our teacher told us that the word "news" comes from the four directions all news comes from - N, E, W and S.
posted by Curious Artificer at 1:50 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am one of those who always assumed that it referred to the capacity of a concrete truck.

Imagine my chagrin to find that, one, I am wrong, but, two, shared this assumption with the likes of William Safire.
posted by Danf at 1:51 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I see that's the title of your post. You see, I have titles set to zero.
posted by Curious Artificer at 1:51 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Six of the whole nine yards" is now a phrase, presumably defined as a slapdash, disappointing and/or incomplete effort.

"Seven of nine yards" indicates abandoning an interesting premise while producing a lazy and derivative work of fiction.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:53 PM on January 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


But then Mr. Shapiro, searching in Chronicling America, a Library of Congress database of pre-1923 newspapers, found two 1912 articles in The Mount Vernon Signal in Kentucky promising to “give” or “tell” the “whole six yards” of a story.

And then they write that off for some reason. Huh. Newspapers are about a square yard, right? And columns are measured in inches? Seems like there may be something to that.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:59 PM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


My favorite thing about the article is how, after it painstakingly disproves all of the many colorful etymologies, the commenters then proceed to offer them each up again, as if they were fact -- the kilt, the machine gun belt, the concrete truck -- plus several more besides (the Kabbalah?)

It's a really interesting problem, and I love the progression of earlier and earlier citations. If you study the English language at all, practically the first thing you learn is that colorful etymologies are always wrong, with very few exceptions ("4:20"). That's just not how people talk, or write, so literal as that. But people LOVE that stuff.
posted by Fnarf at 2:01 PM on January 15, 2013


part of the same “numerical phrase inflation,” as he puts it, that turned “Cloud 7” to “Cloud 9” —

5eva, dat mean moar den 4eva. lik dis if u cry evrytim
posted by Ad hominem at 2:01 PM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


...Cloud 7? WTF?

It's funny how ingrained cliches are - Cloud 7 sounds so wrong in my head that my brain does a little stutterstep each time I think it.
posted by widdershins at 2:03 PM on January 15, 2013


“The existence of a six-yard variant shows pretty clearly that this is not about yards of anything,” he said. “It’s just a random number.”

Clearly? I can see where he's coming from but it's hardly a slam-dunk.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:03 PM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


My favorite thing about the article is how, after it painstakingly disproves all of the many colorful etymologies, the commenters then proceed to offer them each up again, as if they were fact -- the kilt, the machine gun belt, the concrete truck -- plus several more besides (the Kabbalah?)

I seem to be reading a different article from the one you're reading.
posted by yoink at 2:04 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


My guess is that it comes from a 15th century farce.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 2:04 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


I seem to be reading a different article from the one you're reading.

Fnarf is referring I think to the reader comments below the article, where there is indeed a lot of "oh whole nine yards, yeah, it means/I heard it means/it's from x" stuff.
posted by cortex at 2:07 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


..and that's the whole 14.6 mega-yards.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:08 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


numerical phrase inflation
This ... this is a thing? This is amazing. This one goes to twelve.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 2:10 PM on January 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


I wonder if some idioms don't have any meaningful origins, except for being useful and/or colorful. Maybe somebody just said "the whole nine yards" one day, without thinking much, and it stuck. The idiom more than you can shake a stick at may be the same.

Us humans are programmed to find patterns and causes, even when they don't exist.
posted by Triplanetary at 2:13 PM on January 15, 2013


Fnarf is referring I think to the reader comments below the article, where there is indeed a lot of "oh whole nine yards, yeah, it means/I heard it means/it's from x" stuff.

Well, yes, if you read what Fnarf actually wrote then that is, obviously, what he was saying. But if you step inside my head and read him as saying that the article authors offer these claims up again as fact then he was clearly wrong and, frankly, I'm outraged!

Sigh.
posted by yoink at 2:13 PM on January 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


On numerical phrase inflation there is an awesome skit by Swedish comedian Borge. It is on YouTube but I can't link from here.

I promise it is worth your time to look it up.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 2:13 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who announced the findings in next month’s issue of The Yale Alumni Magazine.

This made my head hurt.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:23 PM on January 15, 2013


I just found an instance of 'whole six yards' from 1894

http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page7702904

"OVER THE FILLS". (1894, April 12). The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950), p. 2. Retrieved January 16, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article76480724

Yeah, I realise it might not be what we're after here, but still.
posted by misterbee at 2:23 PM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


numerical phrase inflation

Among other colorful phrases my grandfather always said "Its raining like sixty". I always thought it just meant fast, and wondered if it started as 10 or 20 and slowly crept up as cars got faster. Turns out I was wrong about the cars, but it had started out as "like forty" and got bumped up to sixty somewhere along the way.

Cloud 7 makes sense to me. Seems to go with 7th Heaven.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:25 PM on January 15, 2013


But then Mr. Shapiro, searching in Chronicling America, a Library of Congress database of pre-1923 newspapers, found two 1912 articles in The Mount Vernon Signal in Kentucky promising to “give” or “tell” the “whole six yards” of a story.
And then they write that off for some reason. Huh. Newspapers are about a square yard, right? And columns are measured in inches? Seems like there may be something to that.
It seems to be working on the same meaning as "spin a yarn", in that stories are measured in physical length, somehow proportionate to their length in time or how convoluted they are. So we have in our minds a long piece of thread signifying the plot of the tale told at length. Some suggest there's a direct connection, in that spinners would tell tales to each other while they spun, with the length of thread growing with the tale. We might even take a step from that and imagine weavers telling each other stories, with the yards of cloth piling up as the tale reached its height. Were it not that weavers often worked alone, or in the din of factories, it would be an interesting lead. Nor do I know how long it would take a weaver to make six yards of cloth, and I guess those tales would have been rather long.
posted by Jehan at 2:25 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yoink, I promise to forgive you if you promise not to research the countless times I have done the same thing.
posted by Fnarf at 2:27 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


On numerical phrase inflation there is an awesome skit by Swedish comedian Borge.

Inflationary Language. (Victor Borge was Danish, which, gah, Danish numbers. )
posted by Sys Rq at 2:29 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


See also The Whole Nine Yards' Of What? by linguist Geoff Nunberg

"...it's hard to accept that it doesn't matter where the expression came from. Whether the measure is six yards or nine, it has a tantalizing specificity. It cries out for an explanation... But that profusion of possibilities is the key to the idiom's appeal. ... It's like a line of poetry; it resonates without resolving.

... we don't think of this as poetry. ... But that's just the kind of story we expect when the phrase originates in the collective imagination. So we rummage around in old ships and cement trucks looking for a secret key, as if there couldn't be any poetry in everyday language that didn't begin its life as prose."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:29 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Considering the length of a Sari ("from four to nine yards"), I think we can all agree that the phrase comes from the great Indian epic of Mahabharata, in particular the story of Lord Krishna's defense of Draupadi.
posted by vidur at 2:37 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


This ... this is a thing? This is amazing. This one goes to twelve.

You're damn right it does.
posted by The World Famous at 2:49 PM on January 15, 2013


I grew since the 60’s thinking that it was a football joke of sorts. Like saying "give it a solid 85%" or "I’m a thousandaire". No one ever said that, but that’s the way it seemed to be used around me. And I think that’s the thing; it may come from a phrase that meant something else entirely. It never occurred to me that there was any question what it meant until very recently when I was reading about phrase origins.

These word origins always sound so far fetched, but then I think of how many times I’ve taken a phrase and turned it into nonsense, and how often people have seen something like that on a TV show and repeated it. The explanations like "size of a load of concrete" always seem to straight forward for me. I think most of these things come from obscure inside jokes.

This ... this is a thing? This is amazing. This one goes to twelve.

You're damn right it does.


As this shows. In a couple of years people will be used to amps that go to 12, at some point people won’t remember Spinal Tap, and people will still say "this one goes to 11". Only they won’t know what it means.
posted by bongo_x at 2:53 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


US Navy vet here--Vietnam era. This was commonly used slang while I was in the fleet. I assumed that it was a traditional reference to yardarms. What it meant was roughly equivalent to today's slang term--derived from poker I believe: To go "all in."
posted by CincyBlues at 2:55 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


You're damn right it does.

I have the same family of amp, a Deville, and, yeah, when I got it the next couple of days fell into a sort of an impossibly dull routine:

"I bought a new amp! It's a—"
"Oh, does it go to ELEVEN?!"
"It's—yes, I mean, actually it goes further but it's—"
"No, I mean, Spinal Tap?"
"Yes, I know, but actually—"
"Spinal Tap! It goes to eleven!"
"I HAVE SEEN THE FILM."
posted by cortex at 2:55 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


TIRED JOKES TIRED, FILM AT THIRTEEN
posted by cortex at 2:56 PM on January 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


You're damn right it does.
posted by The World Famous


A link to skotrat.com!
posted by goethean at 3:01 PM on January 15, 2013


Made-up histories for common phrases piss me off so, so much. Take for example "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey." There are numerous probably-bogus "etymologies" out there for this phrase. Why does it have to mean anything? It's just a great, colorful, evocative phrase. Trying to force a fit into something concrete just ruins it.

Rather than live with ambiguity and mystery, some people feel compelled to just make something up. I don't know why this angries up my blood so much, but it sure does.
posted by spacewaitress at 3:05 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


A link to skotrat.com!

Only the best.
posted by The World Famous at 3:18 PM on January 15, 2013


Not to be picky, spacewaitress, but the example was originally "As cold as a witch's tit in a brass bra". Of course, I don't mean to be as useless as "teets on a boar hog". Say calm, and resist becoming "As tight as a gnat's ass over a Mason jar". Please hit the "stop" button!
posted by breadbox at 3:32 PM on January 15, 2013


Every pub quiz host is now a liar.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:33 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, this is the one issue that casts a shadow on the pub quiz industry.
posted by The World Famous at 3:55 PM on January 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


I also thought this was a question that William Safire had put a stake through the heart of it. I read metafilter to learn shit like this. Like yesterday I learned the ancient Romans did not have vomitoriums where they puked after eating so they could eat some more.
posted by bukvich at 4:02 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I realise it might not be what we're after here, but still.

To the contrary, it's very enlightening. It offers not just an earlier citation, but one not from North America, let alone the specific locale of Spartanburg. It's also explicitly -- like those citations -- about story-telling. It casts it as an idiom well enough known to be parodied, as well, which is especially interesting considering it rarely appears in print. Perhaps the influx of miners mentioned in the same story is a possible reason the idiom spread (there were mining rushes to and fro across the globe throughout the 19th century), but that's a presumptive speculation without any real evidence.

For the record, Google Books and News Archive were less than helpful in this search, mostly turning much more recent instances of "the whole six yards", which could be legitimate variation.

That is a naughty name.

Not really. You'd think otherwise, but if that's correct it's right as rain.

Anyway, I did get a copy of the text back in the 1990s when I was curious about this via a discussion on USENET -- I don't think it was a hardcopy, I think I have a scanned file of the text, but it's pretty buried at this point either way. It's a fairly dull flip side of M*A*S*H, for what it's worth, with some decent action sequences. If the war hadn't turned bad, leading to remarkable masterpieces like Dispatches, it might not be a forgotten book even today.
posted by dhartung at 4:20 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


misterbee, your antipodal citation--from a specific "shaggy dog story"--suggests to me that later references to "the whole six yards", in fact, use it as a synecdoche, that is, a part for the whole story, a story so well known that a shorthand reference is all the speaker needs to convey to his audience that he is telling a tall tale. The Latin equivalent of "speak of the devil, and he shall appear" was "lupus in fabula," or, "the wolf in the fable," a proverbial story where mentioning the name of the dreaded wolf was sufficient to cause it to show up: a similar synecdoche that obviated the need to tell the story again.

It is interesting that both early US references are from Kentucky and expressly indicated the telling of a long story. I presume that the "boody" tale from Auld NSW mirrored in some way a story of greater antiquity from Britain, Scotland, or Ireland. One might speculate that Kentucky, settled by many of the miscalled "Scotch irish," descendants of the Lalland Scots who were invited to settle in the Ulster Plantation after Cromwell, might have had the story from there. It is also possible to infer that Ulstermen, transported Down Under by choice or by judicial intervention, could have taken a "mysterious creature ate my harness material" story with them.
posted by rdone at 5:54 PM on January 15, 2013


The "whole six yarns" might refer to including lost books of Moses after the first five (Petrarch).
posted by 445supermag at 7:48 PM on January 15, 2013


Perhaps people were going the whole six yards for the team and then coach decided that this time he wanted them to give 150%.
posted by Segundus at 1:06 AM on January 16, 2013


blue_beetle: "..and that's the whole 14.6 mega-yards."

Dude. How many times do I have to tell you - WE DON'T PLAY RIFTS ANYMORE!
posted by Samizdata at 4:42 AM on January 16, 2013


“People ... are almost always wrong.”
posted by MtDewd at 5:39 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I used to think "whole nine yards" was a joke since it's ten yards for a first down in football. I was as happy as a clam chute in a pig firkin.
posted by Trochanter at 6:56 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 11:20 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Originally it was Darmok and Temba, but somewhere along the line a Tamarian columnist felt like he should juice up the allegory a little.
posted by cortex at 12:17 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's an instance of "the whole ten yards" from 1819. Like misterbee's example, it occurs in a story about an animal stealing an amount of textile.

I wonder how far back this goes?
posted by The Tensor at 1:26 PM on January 16, 2013


Originally it was Darmok and Temba, but somewhere along the line a Tamarian columnist felt like he should juice up the allegory a little.

He worked for the Tanagra Bee, a middling newspaper of no great promise, often rife with the boring incidentals of small town Tanagra going ons, and which had begun the descent into mediocrity after a promising journalist named Samuel Clemens departed for Calveras County, the day when the walls fell.
posted by Atreides at 1:42 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure it comes from the movie titled "The Whole Nine Yards", starring Bruce Willis and Ross Perot from Cheers. I don't think the movie ever explained why it was titled that though.
posted by BurnChao at 4:14 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


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