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Mike Sutton
Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.


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The Whole Nine Yards: Riddle Solved and Another Supermyth is Discovered

Nov. 30, 2013 6:03 am

Dysology.orgPublic Domain

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

...Welcome back...

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.

May 17, 2014 at 10:49 am

Hello again, Mike.

I've been thinking about this "Judge's Big Shirt" anecdote (actually, I've thought about it a lot since we last discussed this) and it occurred to me that you, more than anyone else, probably know the answer to two questions I've had about this.

You and I both know "The Judge's Big Shirt" was published in a lot of publications (mostly newspapers) across the United States in 1855, even as early as early January of that year. (And we're probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.)

Just out of curiosity, have you been able to find it published later than 1855? And have you ever found a retelling of the anecdote where the teller (for example, a small-town newspaper editor) uses words different from those appearing in the canonical version that was reprinted everywhere in 1855? (I assume "the whole nine yards" would also factor into the retelling.) In other words, have you ever found anything but the canonical (original) version?

Of course I fully recognize that if we don't happen to find later reprintings of the canonical version or retellings (from 1856 onwards) that vary somewhat from the published 1855 version doesn't mean that they don't exist. I was curious, though, whether you (with your magic touch) have gone looking for these.

By the way, I also fully recognize that we don't know anything about how this may have circulated by word of mouth.


Thinker's Post
Mike Sutton
May 17, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Hi Bonnie

Good point and caveats accepted its worth looking at. I had a look last time and drew a blank on that. Because new stuff is being scanned all the time I had another look. Still nothing - Searching from 1855 - 1930 on "nine yards" and "shirt" draws a blank.

Yet until something else turns up to disconfirn it I still think we have to say the Yankee Judge has "priority" - even though we can't prove influence. The fact we can not find more shirt links is most tellingly disconcerting. But we have no other candidate. And we have a lot of un-scanned newspapers - at least at the time of writing.

My point is there is no dis-confirming evidence for the 1855 publication that, for now, has priority.

May 17, 2014 at 9:26 pm
Thanks much, Mike. Yes, I agree that an inability to find republications and/or retellings (in print, obviously) doesn't mean that they aren't out there, waiting to be digitized and discovered. I appreciate your taking another look.
Thinker's Post
Mike Sutton
May 19, 2014 at 10:27 am

Hi Bonnie

All that said - if we had an alternative candidate from which we could draw a better inference of "influence" on the phrase taking-off then we might hypothesise that the Yankee Judge's Shirt source has priority - but not full priority, on the grounds that the Judges Shirt influence is not evidenced.

The logic of such an argument would be that any subsequent publication of the phase "the full nine yards" that appears to have influenced other writers to like, adopt and then replicate the phrase its the most important and influential one. According to such reasoning, therefore, the publication that has at least some clearly established "influence" is the one that we should attribute with "greatness", unless new dis-confirming evidence ever turns up to show that the first publication actuality did influence all subsequent versions.

And that is certainly what was done in scientific circles in relation not just to the phrase "natural process of selection" but also to the same exact same concept - when all the experts claimed Patrick Matthew (1831) may have published the discovery and term first but failed to influence anyone with his discovery (Darwin and Wallace claimed zero prior knowledge). Then - as more publications were scanned and could be found it is now 100 % proven that all the books are all wrong. Because, it is newly discovered in 2014 that Matthew most certainly did influence both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace with his prior publication - via 'knowledge contamination'. See:Internet Dating With Darwin. And that's why I'm loath to reject to Judge's Shirt as the source of the phrase and its meaning unless the rationale for doing so is supported by very strong evidence.

Bonnie Taylor-Blake
December 8, 2013 at 9:54 am

Hi, Mike.

As always, this is certainly a thought-provoking column! As someone who's looked at possible origins of "the whole nine yards," though, I only wish we could've chatted about this while you were writing your column. I may have been able to provide some background information on how some of the recent history into research into this phrase took us to where we are now. There's certainly no consensus among linguists and historians about how "the whole nine yards" came to be, mostly because we're still waiting for data to emerge to connect us from point A to point C. (Surely there's a missing link somewhere.) And the anecdote about the judge's shirt, which we've known about for a long time, is still very much in play.

As ever,


Thinker's Post
Mike Sutton
December 10, 2013 at 4:16 am

Thanks Bonnie - thanks for commenting on the blog. I noticed your name associated with the quest for the "Holy Grail of Etymology". Rather weird to find another crossing of our mutual veracity checking. You've not also been working on the origin of the name Humpty Dumpty as well have you? I believe I cracked that one see here.


I guess my point in this blog is best phrased by two telling questions about the 'whole nine yards' phrase origin:

(1) 'Do lexicographers as a general rule require "missing links" (more recent usage?) between the earliest identified first usage of a phrase - that matches the current usage - and the present time? Or:

(2) Are the 'experts' involved making an exception for the 'whole nine yards' because the more recently discovered (1855) earliest usage now dis-confirms their widely published earlier beliefs that are merely based on other writers tweaking of the original usage with different numbers?

After all, current knowledge confirms that it began with nine and ended with nine - right?

In all scholarship, knowledge is always to some extent "in play" - but it can be agreed what the general state of current knowledge is - more so when it is based on empirical evidence - as is the case with the 1855 text.

Bonnie Taylor-Blake
December 11, 2013 at 8:24 pm

(1) 'Do lexicographers as a general rule require "missing links" (more recent usage?) between the earliest identified first usage of a phrase - that matches the current usage - and the present time?

Well, yes, sort of. From the perspectives of the linguists and lexicographers I've observed and admired in this research, cautious baby steps are always warranted and, in truth, well advised. For what it's worth, that's my approach too.

That 1855 anecdote is interesting (and has, as you pointed out, been known for some time), but I feel what's going to be most helpful in elucidating (if we can) how the stand-alone idiom came to be is to find earlier and earlier usages of the idiom itself in American texts, which -- for a variety of reasons -- may be tough. It's tempting to latch on to and hold up that 1855 anecdote (I don't mean that dismissively), but what bothers me is all that's not so easy to pour through, all that's not easily Google-able. It's knowing that data about the earliest forms of the idiom (i.e., preceding 1907) are out there but difficult to extract that bothers me. Maybe it will all lead to the "judge's shirt" anecdote; maybe not.

For several reasons, I'm not convinced that the idiom itself derived from the anecdote or that the idiom and the anecdote have much to do with one another, though you obviously disagree. That there's a connection is obvious to you; to me, not so much. I do know enough about the search for the possible origin of the idiom to recognize that this is a moving field, especially over the last three years, one with that's already yielded surprises and upended pet theories, so many things are possible. You've discovered that experts have been wrong, which really isn't surprising, and you've adopted your own theory about the origin of the expression. I suppose time will tell about theories, new and old, but -- in the interim -- enjoy the hunt, Mike.

-- Bonnie

Thinker's Post
Mike Sutton
December 13, 2013 at 6:02 am

Hi Bonnie

I agree with all of what you say except for the fact (as I see it anyway) that it has been applied exceptionally in the case of 'The Whole Nine Yards' to completely dismiss the simple fact that the 1855 'Judges Big Shirt' is the earliest source we currently have of the popular phrase.

By exceptionally dismissing it as a random number there is the danger that the possible psychological importance of "nine" has a greater chance of being overlooked.

After all, lexicographers have noted already this issue ...why "dressed to the nines" why finally settle on "cloud nine". Why then did humans finally settle on the full nine yards?

As Ozmatli sing - why are there "99 problems but the bitch aint one?" Why in the UK do we dial 999 in an emergency? Why does a cat have 9 lives? Why, in the UK, is an ice cream with a chocolate flake in it called a 99? Why is there an automobile called a Saab 99? Why did the 'Cat O Nine tails' whip have 9 and not 10 cords? etc etc...

My question is: "Is the number nine statistically over-represented in our naming, conventions and phraseology?'

Is 9 in the 'Whole Nine Yards' phrase a science problem in need of a solution? In that question we might find out something new about ourselves - perhaps something with currently unknown applications.

Earlier uses of the phrase have not been discovered. Google has 30+ million documents currently scanned in its library project. Because most of these are more than 75 years old (out of copyright) - and predate the expansion of the publication industry that began with mechanized printing in the second half of the 19th century, questing for a rich vein of earlier and later (other than nine) uses of the phrase is more likely than not to be a fools errand.

We should, of course, keep looking - but at this very moment we should not simply dismiss the intriguing hard evidence that is right under our noses just because it refutes what we earlier went public with.

The 1855 case is now the best that current knowledge has to offer. Of course it may yet be refuted - but it is surely worthy of examination until new data is discovered (if that ever happens). To do anything else is to make a biased exception to ignore the evidence my opinion. And biased exceptions are the root of all dysology. Nullius in Verba.

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