The Nine Yards Supermyth
As I explain on my Supermyth website , a supermyth is:
The creation of a fallacy, myth or error by an orthodox expert that is then used by another expert who in turn promotes it as being ‘true, and whilst still thinking that it is true promotes it as a good example of the need to be healthily skeptical of bad scholarship.
The 'Whole Nine Yards' Mystery is Solved and another Supermyth is Discovered
The mystery of the expression “the whole nine yards” has dogged expert and amateur etymology detectives for many years. Widely described as "the Holy Grail" of etymology or else as "The Most Prominent Etymological Riddle of Our Time" .
To understand the history of the problem, ideally, you should read this article from the New York Times: The Whole Nine Yards About a Phrase’s Origin By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER December 26, 2012
As the New York Times article reveals etymological experts have for decades been trying to solve the problem of the origin of this expression. Various answers have from tine to time been discovered and then debunked. Today, in just five minutes, I have debunked the current ‘knowledge belief’ that the number nine in the phrase 'the 'whole nine yards' is just an irrelevant number. Because it is in fact a significant number and it predates later expressions of such things as 'the whole six yards...'
As the New York Times article informs us, the earliest discovered published use of the phrase "the whole nine yards" was for many years set at 1956. Then others found the phrase "the whole six yards" had been published as back as far as 1912. Untold in the article is the fact that others found 'whole nine yards' once again published earlier - and as long ago as 1907. Yet the understanding that the actual number of yards is insignificant held sway.
These discoveries of different numbers of yards led to the current belief that the actual number in the phrase is historically insignificant in explaining its origin and meaning.
Today I found the Holy Grail of phrase origins, and thought that I had solved a great etymological riddle when I unearthed the fact that the phrase: "the whole nine yards" had been published as far back as 1855 and, from the context in which it is used, it seems that, contrary to expert knowledge beliefs, the "nine" is highly significant in the origin of the phrase and also to its modern meaning and common use.See:Yankee-notions - Volume 4, Issues 1-12 - Page 167
'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..'
At first, I thought this was my own unique discovery, but - dagnabbit - if you enter the above quote into Google you will see that others got there first and did so at least as early as 2009 - and they posted the discovery on the internet.
I wish I discovered this - but I never dagnabbit!Attribution
The Whole Nine Yards - 1855
The original meaning from 1855 is close to the idea that someone has stupidly over-egged the pudding, or rather, and perhaps more accurately, that someone has put their "all and everything" into one thing - since three yards of cloth is sufficient material for a shirt, nine yards is sufficient to make three, the whole lot and everything went into just one shirt.
Hence, the number nine is significant in its earliest (to date) discovered use. See this 1891 snippet form the Illustrated American, by way of just one example that proves one 19th Century shirt could typically be made from three yards of cloth:
'It will require just three yards of wash silk to make a shirt by one of the Butterick tissue-paper patterns, which I think you will find more satisfactory than any others.'
It matters not a jot that there are later six-yard variants of the original phrase, because they are nothing more than variants on the original or else a mere descriptive measurement of distance. Similarly, even earlier uses of other numbers in the same phrase can be found, such as, by way of just one example among many, "the whole three yards" from 1782 - .but these are no more than mere simple descriptions of measures of distance.
Logically, given the common modern usage of the phrase 'the whole nine yards' to mean "everything and the whole lot", the earliest discovered 1855 usage overturns current 'knowledge' that the number nine is insignificant to the popularity of the phrase and its popular modern usage to mean "the all and everything". Of course, we are concerned here with yards of measurement and not yards as places as in, a 1942 military deployment of the phrase. And, just to show how confusing this sort of thing is - when you look for "full" nine yards you discover a whole new field of meaning. For example, check this out from 1939.
The Whole Nine Yards Supermyth
Etymological expert and former editor at The New York Times Book Review, Patricia T. O'Conner - who is author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, helped to entrench the Whole Nine Yards supermyth in May 2008 when, on the Mental Floss website she deployed the myth that it had absolutely nothing to do with the amount of fabric required to make a garment:
'Another thing some people just can't accept is that the origins of many common expressions will probably always remain a mystery. We know, for instance, what "the whole nine yards" means—the works, everything, the whole enchilada. But nobody knows where it comes from.
Before you offer the definitive etymology of the expression, let me say that I've heard it before. I've heard them all, and none of them are genuine. "The whole nine yards" is not a reference to ammunition clips used by gunners on World War II aircraft. It is not a seafaring phrase about the three yards—or long spars—on each of the three masts of a clipper ship. It has nothing to do with the amount of fabric required to make a burial shroud. And it's not about the capacity of a ready-mix concrete truck, either.
In fact, no one really knows how the phrase originated. All we know for sure is that it's an Americanism from the 1960s. Unfortunately, many linguists and writers (including me) have spent way too much time trying to track down its origin. All those theories I mentioned, from ammo belts to loads of cement, have been debunked. The British language sleuth Michael Quinion has also ruled out suggestions that the phrase comes from the fabric needed for a nun's habit, a three-piece suit, or a Scottish kilt; the capacity of a coal-ore wagon or a garbage truck; the length of a maharajah's sash or a hangman's noose; the distance between the cell block and the outer wall of a prison, and any number of measurements having to do with sports.
We simply don't know—and may never know—where some words and expressions come from. But language lovers hate to take no for an answer. Maybe that's how myths are born.'
Unfortunately for both O'Conner, Quinion and others who entrenched the Whole Nine Yards Supermyth, they never used the ID research method to search through the data to discover the 1855 'Big Judge's Shirt' story as others did.
I suspect that if any of these experts had, themselves, discovered that earlier source then they would be the one now shouting about their amazing great discovery of the Holy Grail of etymological mysteries from the rooftops, rather than merely dismissing it - without supporting evidence - as irrelevant because it dis-confirms their earlier widely published 'expert' position that the number nine is irrelevant because its random.
Discussion of Significance, Conclusion and Caveat
So there we have it. The earliest (to date) publication of of the phrase 'the whole nine yards' is by way of reference to the amount of cloth needed to make a shirt being surpassed by the use instead of the entire amount available that could have made three. And, most tellingly, this - all and everything - original story fits perfectly the sentiment of modern use of the phrase.
Lexicographers who currently deny that the 1855 "Big Yankee Judge's Shirt Source" is related to the modern phrase have missed the point that the meaning in the 1855 story is exactly the same as the "all and everything"modern meaning. If they wish to claim now that it is unrelated then surely they need to explain how they know it is unrelated.
The 1855 'Big Judge's Shirt Story' is not only (a) the earliest discovered use of the phrase but (b) it has also the exact same meaning as the modern usage. Therefore, the burden of proof is now on those origin deniers to support their rejection of it. And, to date they have been unable to do that.
It seems the experts who currently deny that the 1855 Judge's Big Shirt origin is the discovery of the etymological Holy Grail are suffering from what we might call 'disconfirmation blindness', the inverse of confirmation bias, of their earlier, widely published, beliefs that the number nine in the phrase is random. In effect, I believe that they are suffering from cognitive dissonance by failing to adequately engage with the new data, which in other areas of etymology would be perfectly acceptable evidence of the newly discovered - or else well known - source of a phrase.
However, I must stress that, although the earliest (to date) origin of the expression has been found to be true to its present usage, this does not mean that the 1855 article in Yankee Notions - and other 1855 publications - is actually responsible for the modern popular use of the phrase. It may have been incubating for 100 years as a result of its 1855 publication, or it may not. My point is that to date we do not have sufficient evidence to dis-confirm the hypothesis that the Big Judge's Shirt Story is the source of the phrase 'the whole nine yards.' More research is actually needed to crack that etymological problem, but at the time of writing it is the best 'most likely' source that we have, simply because there are no rational grounds for dismissing the number 9 in the original version as insignificantly linked to the 9 in its current popular usage.
Postscript (8th December 2013)
I Tweeted Jenny Schuessler about this 1855 discovery. You can see her dismissal of its relevance there:
The importance of the discovery of the ID research method
This month, using the newly discovered ID Research method, I bust a Wikipedian myth a day here on Best Thinking. But it is not just Wikipedia that is getting so much history wrong.
Following the discovery of a new way to find hidden facts, all the etymological dictionaries will be re-written now that we can at last discover the hidden books in the library.
With this same powerful ID (Internet-date detection) research method I have uniquely discovered previously neglected material that proves both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace committed the greatest science fraud in history. The ID research method cuts through un-evidenced claptrap like a buzzsaw in bulloney and faux-skeptical adoring Darwinists are far from immune from it. More on that will be forthcoming very soon. I have a completed book manuscript on that unique research and I am looking for a suitable publisher.