Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Whole Nine Yards About a Phrase’s Origin

December 26, 2012

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, chased around wild speculative corners by amateur word freaks, with exasperated lexicographers and debunkers of folk etymologies in hot pursuit.

Does the phrase derive from the length of ammunition belts in World War II aircraft? The contents of a standard concrete mixer? The amount of beer a British naval recruit was obligated to drink? Yardage in football? The length of fabric in a Scottish kilt (or sari, or kimono, or burial shroud)?

Type the phrase into Google and you’re likely to get any of these answers, usually backed by nothing more than vaguely remembered conversations with someone’s Great-Uncle Ed. 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.

The recent discovery of several instances of “the whole six yards” in newspapers from the 1910s — four decades before the earliest known references to “the whole nine yards” — opens a new window onto “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time,” said Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who announced the findings in next month’s issue of The Yale Alumni Magazine.

Other language experts agree about the import of the discovery. “The phrase is interesting because it’s so mysterious,” said Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of Visual and, who has written previously on the search for its origin. “It’s been a kind of Holy Grail.”

Like the Holy Grail “the whole nine yards” has inspired both armchair mythologizing and years of hard and often fruitless searching through random books and miles of newspaper microfilm. Not that the expression is necessarily all that old. The first scholarly dating, in a 1986 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, traced it to 1970. 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.

Meanwhile popular obsession with the phrase was growing. Mr. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” attributes the interest to William Safire, who was a political and language columnist for The New York Times, who died in 2009. In 1982 he made a public appeal for information about its origins on Larry King’s radio program. Mr. Safire went on to write no fewer than nine columns related to the phrase, including one chiding the White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan for referring to “the whole seven yards.”

“There goes his credibility with me,” Mr. Safire wrote, before confidently declaring that the expression referred to a fully loaded concrete truck, whose contents are typically measured in cubic yards.

But Mr. Safire was writing before searchable digital databases, which over the past decade have largely supplanted the painstaking work of poring over microfilm and given rise to a culture of ferociously competitive “antedaters,” often amateurs, eager to disprove various theories.

The first new break on “the whole nine yards” came in 2007, when Sam Clements, a coin dealer and avid word sleuth from Akron, Ohio, discovered it in a 1964 article in The Tucson Daily Citizen about space program slang. By 2009 two other researchers had pushed it back to 1962, when it appeared in a short story about a brush salesman and an article in a car magazine.

Some lexicographers thought the evidence was creeping closer to a World War II-era origin, and possibly some connection to the military, though there was still no hard evidence for the popular ammunition-belt theory. Then, in August, Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher in North Carolina who had been searching for variants of the phrase via Google News Archive and Google Books for five years, posted a message on the e-mail list of the American Dialect Society noting a 1956 occurrence in an outdoors magazine called Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, followed in September by a more startling twist: a 1921 headline from The Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina reading “The Whole Six Yards of It.”

The somewhat cryptic headline, atop a detailed account of a baseball game that did not use the phrase, initially caused some head scratching among the society’s members. One person asked whether the headline referred to the ball fields, or “yards,” of the six teams in the league discussed in the article.

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. Ms. Taylor-Blake also found another instance from 1916, in the same paper.

The dating clearly refutes the popular ammunition-belt and concrete-mixer theories, Mr. Shapiro said, while the Kentucky focus suggests a probable “backwoods provenance.” As for the meaning of the phrase, he added, the slippage from six yards to nine — part of the same “numerical phrase inflation,” as he puts it, that turned “Cloud 7” to “Cloud 9” — suggests it doesn’t refer to anything in particular any more than, say, “the whole shebang” does.

Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, agrees. “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.”

Mr. Shapiro concedes that he and Ms. Taylor-Blake have found only “negative evidence,” and a firm origin story may yet emerge. But neither he nor Mr. Sheidlower is confident that scholarly research will dispel the urban legends that cling to expressions like “the whole nine yards.”

Mr. Sheidlower points to the persistent belief that Chicago’s reputation as “the Windy City” springs from its blowhard politicians boasting about the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and not, as occurrences in newspaper articles dating to the 1860s suggest, its weather.

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

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