A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from May 14, 2005
Whole Nine Yards (summary; Capt. Richard Stratton’s 1955 attestation)
"The whole nine yards" has been the great American etymological mystery of the second-half of the twentieth century. The expression is similar to many other expressions, such as the "whole shebang," the "whole ball of wax," the "whole enchilada," and so on.

Many suggestions have been made for the phrase's meaning, but it appears that a popular 1855 story, "The Judge's Big Shirt," spread the idea that the "whole nine yards" of cloth meant "everything." A bawdy story about a Scotsman's kilt told in the 1950s among U.S. airmen made the expression popular in the military during the Vietnam War years of the 1960s.

[This entry includes research from many on the American Dialect Society listserv, mostly from Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Fred R. Shapiro.]


(Oxford English Dictionary)
colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.). the whole (also the full, the entire, all) nine yards: everything, the whole lot; (also as adv.) all the way. Later also the whole nine.
Apparently originating in the frequently repeated comic story cited in quot. 1855. Early examples are all from the same district on the border of Indiana and Kentucky. A parallel expression, the whole six yards, is occasionally attested in the early 20th cent.
[1855 New Albany (Indiana) Daily Ledger 30 Jan. 1/4 ‘The Judge's Big Shirt’... What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!]
1907 Mitchell (Indiana) Commerc. 2 May The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards.
1908 Mitchell (Indiana) Commerc. 4 June 3/5 Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell... He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.
1956 Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground July 18/2 The Kentucky Afield Fishing Derbies are underway!.. There are a total of six derbies; a Grand Prize Derby, and a derby a month at at a major Kentucky fishing spot... So that's the whole nine-yards.
1962 Car Life Dec. 2 Your staff of testers cannot fairly and equitably appraise the Chevrolet Impala sedan, with all nine yards of goodies, against the Plymouth Savoy which has straight shift and none of the mechanical conveniences which are quite common now.

(Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
the whole nine yards
[the orig. ref. of the phr. remains obscure; var. hypotheses relating it to e.g. football yardage, cloth length in suit manufacture, or capacity of cement mixers have been shown to be unfounded. The fact that nine yards is a customary length in a burial shroud, as shown in the 1958 quot. ref. to Appalachian folklore, is provocative, butthis suggestion cannot beshown to be related]
everything possible; the WORKS. Also (later) the whole nine.
[1958 M.W. Wellman Nine Yards of Other Cloth, in Mag. of Fantasy & S.F. (Nov.): I'll weave nine yards of other cloth/For John to have and keep,/He'll need it where he's going to lie,/To warm him in his sleep.]
1966 E. Shepard Doom Pussy 173: The first thing in the early pearly morning and the last thing at night. Beds all over the gahdam house. The whole nine yards.
1970 in OED2: Whole nine yards, the entire thing.
1972 J. Morris Strawberry Soldier 18: The Combat Infantryman's Badge, a senior parachutist's badge, Vietnamese parachutist's wings, the whole nine yards of his Freddy Fascist suit.

Chronicling America
22 March 1855, True America (Steubenville, OH), "The Judge's Big SHirt," pg. 4, col. 3:
Google Books
June 1855, Yankee Notions, pg. 167, col. 1:
What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt.

2 May 1907, Mitchell (SC) Commercial, "Baseball," pg. 2, col. 3:
The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards.

4 June 1908, Mitchell (IN) Commercial, pg. 3, col. 5:
Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell. (...) He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.

26 November 1914, Mitchell (IN) Commercial, "Story of a Green Basket," pg. 1, col. 5:
The girl stated she called for the premiums and finding no one in she looked in the basket and knew the goods belonged to her mama, so she took them. This settled the whole nine yards.

Google News Archive
7 May 1921, Spartanburg (SC) Herald, pg. 5, col. 4:
THE WHOLE SIX YARDS OF IT.

22 September 1946, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), "Two All-Americans: Sausage and Sweets" by Cissy Gregg, Roto-Magazine, pg. 30:
Banana fritters can be eaten without any decoration other than a dash of cinnamon, or a drift of whipped cream. Others go the full nine yards and serve them with a sauce.

9 February 1947, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), "Mixed Grill: The Way to a Man's Heart" by Cissy Gregg & Pat Ogden, Magazine, pg. 18:
We went the full nine yards and added mushrooms in an overall coverage.

16 December 1951, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), "A Comfortable Christmas" by Cissy Gregg, Magazine, pg. 31:
It doesn't need a frosting more than perhaps a slight dusting of powdered sugar. We, however, always go the full nine yards and so added a topping of buttered frosting and did a little decorating with cinnamon drops and slivers of citron.

Google Books
Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground
Volume 13
1957
Pg. 31:
These guys go the whole nine yards — no halfway stuff for them.

Google Books
Michigan's Voices: A Literary Quarterly Magazine
Created by Michigan Writers and Artists
Saginaw, MI: Quarterly Pub. Co.
vol. 2, no. 4 - Fall 1960
Pg. 41:
...mad. mad. mad, the consequence of house, home, kids, respectability, status as a college professor and the whole nine yards, as a brush salesman who came by the house was fond of saying,

Google Books
Aerospace Pilot
By Charles Ira Coombs
New York, NY: Morrow
1964
Pg. 164:
At Brooks they put you through the whole "nine yards," as they say, of exhaustive physiological tests — everything from pressure chambers to treadmills.

25 April 1964, Tucson (AZ) Daily Citizen, "Talking Hip In The Space Age" by Stephen Trumbell, pg. 25:
"Give 'em the whole nine yards" means an item-by-item report on any project.

Google News Archive
28 December 1965, Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), "'Burners' Are Not Informed" by Keith Burris, pg. A11, col. 1:
Capt. Greer was on alert the night of the big Red raid on Piel Me. He said the Cong troops were extremely well outfitted with steel helmets, boots -- "the whole nine yards of uniform."

Google Books
Wings of the Tiger
by Carl Krueger
New York, NY: Frederick Fell
1966
Pg. 39:
"Okay, Tiger," it said. "Give 'em the whole nine yards. Now!" Chuck sighted through the frosted sights ground into his canopy. The hairlines crossed. He hit the toggle switch that controlled the pods. There was the sudden WHOOSH WHOOSH WHOOSH as one hundred and fourteen rockets ejected from...
Pg. 55:
Never thought I'd see myself wanting to go the whole nine yards with any girl. Not after all these years.
Pg. 57:
"We'll go over it after de-briefing. Get me a list of all pilots and planes available. Everything. The whole nine yards.
Pg. 190:
"The whole nine yards. Everything except tomorrow's weather map
Pg. 223:
"Don't forget -- give 'em the whole nine yards!"

13 November 1967, Pacific Stars and Stripes, pg 11:
Spec. 4 Robert G. Helton, 64th Quartermaster Bin. -- "Ann Margaret -- all the way. She's got everything going for her. She dances, sings, acts -- the whole nine yards."

25 April 1969, Playground Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, FL), pg. 15 ad:
This home has the "whole nine yards" in convenience.

21 March 1973, Oakland (CA) Tribune, pg. 5, col. 1:
Ex-POWs Seen as
Symbols of All GIs
By Richard Paoli
The returning prisoners of war symbolize every American that fought in Vietnam, Cmdr. Richard A. Stratton, of Palo Alto, told newsmen at a press conference yesterday at Oakland Naval Hospital.
(...)
"The interesting thing that I have noticed is a new freedom of spirit," said Stratton, a soft touch of New England twang in his voice. "I think the long hair, short skirts, loud music, fancy cars - the whole nine yards - simply resolves itself into a new freedom."

3 December 1982, New York Times, "On Language" by William Safire, pg. SM11:
The whole nine yards is one of the great etymological mysteries of our time.
(...)
"Stumps me completely," reports Stuart Flexner, boss of Random House's reference department. "I'm sorry to report that I've come up with exactly zilch," adds Sol Steinmetz of Barnhart Books. These guys are the heavy hitters of slang etymology: of they don't know, only one other source is left: Dr. Fred Cassidy, director-editor of the soon-to-be-published Dictionary of American Regional English, known to the lexicographic world as "the man from DARE."

"I am also thoroughly puzzled about it," replied Professor Cassidy, offering two leads churned up in his thousands of interviews: the contents of an army truck, and something to do with a bolt of cloth.

(EMAIL: May 13, 2005 e-mail response from Richard Stratton)
Barry,

The most unique request I have received since 1973!

Etymology of "whole nine yards"?

1. Where first heard?
Navy School of Preflight in July 1955 at the ACRAAC (Aviation Cadet Recreation and Athletic Club - a base beer hall; NavCad's could not use O Club). Home of salacious & scatological songs, shaggy dog stories and off beat humor.
2. What meaning then?
Referred to the mythical Andy McTavish's private member and the scarf knitted by him for the birthday of his affianced, Mary Margaret MacMuff.
3. Explained in detail?
Yes, in great detail. One of a series of stories and songs enshrining the courtship of Andy and Mary Margaret.
4. US or VN?
United States - NAS Pensacola FL
5. Aviator usage in 1973?
The "whole nine yards" joined "the whole kit and caboodle" as meaning "all inclusive", "containing each and every element" and "a whole without any exceptions". It had lost all sexual reference or innuendo.

Attached for your information.

Dick
(See the next entry for the attachment -- ed.)

New York (NY) Times
The Whole Nine Yards About a Phrase’s Origin
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER DEC. 26, 2012
(...)
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.”
Posted by Barry Popik
Other ExpressionsOrigin of "The Whole Nine Yards" • Saturday, May 14, 2005 • Permalink


I have always suspected that the phrase “the whole nine yards” originated in military aviation. I first heard it in the late 1970s from a former NASA quality control director who had gone to work at Sperry-Sun, Inc. in the Houston area.  This seems to be supported by the note above that it was first recorded as Air Force slang in 1966.  Even if it is not the length of ammunition belts in WW II fighters, it probably relates to something in military aviation.

Check out my page on unusual words and phrases I heard when growing up at Burke, Texas in Angelina County.  http://www.burketexas.com/life/talk.htm.

Posted by Lee Murrah  on  04/02  at  12:13 PM

I may have missed it but the origin of this one was pretty simple to me.  It started during world war II.  The length of the ammo belts that went into planes such as the mustang fighter were 9 yards long.
When the munitions guy’s would arm the planes with the ammo belts for the machine guns they would make sure that they loaded the whole nine yards so the pilot would know exactly how much ammo he had.

Posted by mike cruickshank  on  07/29  at  09:38 PM

I did miss the mention of my clue above but my source is pretty accurate.  One of my former clients, a great man named Ben Yedlin, was a ball turret gunner in world war II.  He clued me into the origin of the phrase and said it was used quite frequently during his 24 bombing missions tha the flew. 

Sadly, Ben died of cancer a couple of years ago so I can’t have him come on here to verify.

Posted by mike cruickshank  on  07/29  at  09:41 PM

I cannot attest as to the origin of this phrase nor when it was first used in print, but I am young enough to have heard it used by my Father as early as 1954.  My 3 older brothers may be able to (verbally) date it even further in the past.  My Grandfather was born in Missouri in 1858, and Missourians (at least our family) had a long list of expressions they used to refer to many different situations.  (How hard it is raining; How cold it is; How intelligent someone is; How tight something is--money or girth; & etc.)
Keep my comment, or not; no offence will be taken.

Posted by Leon Estes  on  07/06  at  11:50 PM

I’ve been hearing the term the whole nine yards my whole life...I’d always heard that a bolt of cloth was 9 yards long...and the whole nine yards means that you want the whole bolt…

Posted by charles-smythe  on  03/29  at  05:05 PM

I think the historical perspective to the phrase is very illuminating. Thanks!

Posted by Michigan Cancer Center  on  04/12  at  04:48 AM

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