whole nine yards

This post, a repeat of one I did in July, 2014, is for Charlotte, who wonders where the expression came from.

The whole nine yards (whole six yards, whole enchilada, whole shooting match, whole shebang, whole kit and caboodle) is a colloquial American phrase meaning ‘everything, the whole lot, the full story,’ as in, “The lecturer gave us the whole nine yards on the use of space systems.” The phrases are variations on the ‘whole ball of wax,’ which was first recorded in the 1880s.

‘The whole nine yards” was introduced to a national audience in a Vietnam War novel and became common in the 1980s and 1990s. The origin is unknown, though it has inspired much theorizing (bull sessions?) and fruitless searching through random books and miles of newspaper microfilm. That the mystery hasn’t been solved is surprising, since the expression is not that old.

Here are only a few of the many theories: It may have arisen because nine yards is the length of fabric necessary to fashion: a wedding dress, a man’s suit, a burial shroud, a sarong or a kimono. Or it may mean a full set of sails on a three-masted ship running with all sail out. Perhaps it’s the volume (nine cubic yards) of earth removed from the ground to make a grave or the number of lots in a New York City block. It may have evolved from ‘the whole six yards,’ which appears earlier in written sources. Some word detectives suggest that the number, whether it’s six, nine or seven, means nothing.

While these ‘whole’ expressions usually refer to real objects, none of them represents ‘wholeness’ and they have just been tacked on to to make catchy phrases. ‘Shebang’ was used that way and the fact that people using it didn’t know what a shebang was didn’t really matter. It was simply a colorful way of saying ‘thing.’

And that’s the whole kit and caboodle, folks!

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