Blaise Pascal once wrote someone the following: “I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
Today we might say that Pascal gave his reader, not the short version of his thought, but “the whole nine yards.” All of it.
But what’s the origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards”? According to Jennifer Schuessler, writing in the The New York Times last week, among its first appearances in print comes from the early 20th century as a newspaper headline in which it prepared the reader for the long version of a story. The headline was for a sports article and read thusly:
The Whole Six Yards of It.
“Yards” of column inches devoted to a news story were perhaps being compared to how one might order up a purchase of fabric, as in Don’t cut me just a part of that roll of fabric, please, but give me the whole nine yards. Or, in this case, six yards.
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. [...]
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, [...]
[I]n 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 [...] 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. [...]
[T]he Kentucky focus suggests a probable “backwoods provenance.” As for the meaning of the phrase, he [Shapiro] 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.
There are three things I find interesting here:
- First is how similar in debate and caution the language mavens are to evolutionary biologists. The phrase “the whole nine yards” is akin to a little organism or gene. Richard Dawkins famously calls such migrating or viral language units memes. This particular meme has a readily identifiable geographic origin (in this case, Kentucky), increased its range over time, mutated its “six” to a “nine,” etc.
- The second thing I notice concerns the fact that logically possible and plausible “just so” origin stories have been offered for the phrase, but none of them are true. Here’s Schuessler again: “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)?” Thanks to the discovery of fresh evidence, all of these, we now know, are either completely wrong or substantially so.
- The third thing I notice concerns the phrase itself: it takes for granted that there is such a thing as “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” of a matter; that you really can get a fully exhaustive story, “the whole nine yards” of it. Such an epistemic assumption, of course, ill-fits our postmodern sensibility, but it certainly matches its early 20th century (or earlier) Kentucky backwoods origin. But contra the premise, we are quite certain nowadays that very little that most concerns us can be laid down like a piece of fabric and made susceptible to a full and complete survey; a final explanation; “the whole nine yards.” (The physicist Steven Weinberg calls such ultimate pursuits “dreams of a final theory”). Evolution, perspective, and interpretation rarely (ever?) wholly closes over a thing.
Chasing this epistemic observation a bit further, I think of psychotherapist Karl Meninger’s 1938 book, Man Against Himself, in which he uses suicide to illustrate the slipperiness of ultimate explanation:
Mystery murder and detective stories are turned out by the thousands in which the obvious explanation is pierced by the subtlest persistency of the hero-sleuth. It is significant that it is almost never the explanation of a suicide which is sought in these stories, but that of a murder. (19)
In other words, unlike linking a suspect to a straightforward crime (“the son killed the father for the inheritance; cuff him”), explaining a suicide seems somehow bottomless (or, at any rate, a bit too cloudy for the murder mystery genre). How does one, after all, ever fully recount the contingent experience and inner life of a victim of suicide, telling of them “the whole nine yards”?
I like Meninger’s examples. One concerns a rich man with a large insurance policy, which we learn has killed himself after his investments failed. Our first response is that, well, the man’s motive was to face “ruin in a way that benefits his dependents” (20).
But, asks Meninger, “why should we begin our interpretation only at this late point” in the man’s life? Isn’t it quite true that “even those who have money and lose it do not in the vast majority of cases kill themselves, [...]“? Thus Meninger cautions, “we do not know what this man’s deeper motives were for this particular act” (20-21).
Meninger’s second example is a small town bank cashier who late one afternoon “locked himself in his office with a revolver and was found dead the next morning. A shortage in his books was subsequently discovered” (22). From this one might conclude with regard to motive that the case is closed: the man was stealing from the bank.
But Meninger complicates the matter. “A few weeks later” a new angle emerges: the man, it is discovered, was having an affair which friends rumored was motivated by his wife’s sexual frigidity, and her “always cold and unsympathetic” treatment of him. If this now accounts, at least in part, for the clerk’s subsequent suicide, Meninger has a follow-up question: “Why did he marry such a woman?” And, in good psychoanalytic fashion, this brings Meninger to questions about the clerk’s relationship with his mother: “All that we can see is that this man began to commit suicide long before he took the pistol in his hand and long before he took the money from the bank” (22).
Getting at “the whole nine yards” of this clerk’s story, in other words, might prove daunting at best, as is true of getting at “the whole nine yards” concerning the phrase “the whole nine yards.”
A headline from South Carolina’s The Spartanburg Herald-Journal in 1921:
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth–the whole nine yards?