Dear Matthew Alice:
Can you find out where the expression "the whole nine yards" came from?
-- Everyone in San Diego
Things that make you go "No! Please! Leave me alone!" Somewhere in the office is the Nine Yards box, full of queries on the origin of this expression that will not die. Nine yards of what, everybody wants to know. Kilt material? Sari fabric? Concrete? Ammo belts, sails, burial shrouds, football downs? Several dozen guesses, each more ridiculous than the last. The more ridiculous the guess, the more convoluted the explanatory story that goes with it. For years, our friends the word clods have weaseled around, sniveling that, well, they're not really sure; word detection is an art, not a science; go away; we'll let you know if we come up with something.
Finally one of the group has had enough and is willing to give up the nine-yards origin. At least the origin as the word nerds see it. The expression has only appeared in print after the mid-1960s, suggesting that it didn't originate too much earlier than that. And all the experts' research has always lead to the U.S. military as the source, particularly Navy or Air Force pilots. The very respected British word-origin expert Michael Quinion has put his money on the explanation that he credits to New York researcher Barry Popik, who in turn quotes Vietnam prisoner of war Richard Stratton. Stratton recalls hearing the expression at the air base in Pensacola, Florida, in the mid-1950s. He says it came from the punch line of a smutty joke making the rounds at the time. The joke has to do with a nine-yard scarf knitted by some Scotsman for his girlfriend. In drunken passion one night, he wraps the scarf around his neck and runs to her house to present it to her. As often happens in these jokes, along the way he loses his kilt. Too tipsy to realize he's naked from the waist down, he asks g'friend, "Well, how do you like it?" She says something like, um, well, lots, honey. To which he says, "The whole nine yards?" Anyway, that's a rough translation of the original joke, which is much, much longer but, believe me, not any funnier. The story sounds likely to me. There's a San Diego car dealership that for decades used the punch line to a dirty joke as a tag line in their commercials without anybody being the wiser. And if this explanation is good enough for Michael Quinion, it's good enough for all of you.
The Endless Yard
Once again, Matthew Alice opens a worm can best left closed and suffers the consequences. "The whole nine yards" debate will not die, and why I figured we could play Dr. Kevorkian to this particular bit of common knowledge I really don't know. We even heard from one Lyle Davidson, saying we had the joke all wrong, giving us the corrected version, and saying it had nothing to do with the expression. The only conclusion we've drawn so far is that Scottish jokes are really, really unfunny, no matter which version you hear.
Phil Coyle of netland sent an email similar to this received from George Weisz of Carlsbad.
[The expression] goes back to WWII. The fighter airplanes were equipped with six or eight .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the wings. Each had a canister attached containing a prepackaged belt of ammunition measuring 27 feet long, NINE YARDS! When questioned by his crew chief upon landing after a busy mission about how much ammo he thought he had used, the pilot would report, "The whole nine yards!" meaning he had [given it] all he had.
We're still looking, so this isn't the final word, but we've yet to find a military ammo specialist who will confirm that nine yards was a standard length for cartridge belts for the popular M2 .50 caliber Browning (used on land, sea, and air) or any other machine gun. The first thing they point out is that a yard isn't a relevant measure. The belts as well as the drums or canisters that held them were measured in rounds, a much more useful figure. Granted, this story has everything going for it. Of all the guesses, this is my personal fave. The military, especially in war time, contributes mightily to casual speech and adds borrowed words and phrases from foreign countries as well. And the machine gun story is at least plausible, requiring no imagination stretching or abandoning of credulity. It just isn't supported (so far) by the facts. It's possible, I suppose, that some crew arbitrarily picked nine yards as the length of their ammo belts and the expression spread from there. But there isn't even a solid anecdotal story to suggest this is true. If George actually heard some pilot say this, we need to know. If George simply heard the story that some pilot said that, well, that's maybe the whole yard and a half. Not quite up to snuff.