What Does The Whole Nine Yards Mean?

The Whole Nine Yards Meaning

Definition: The entire amount; everything, as far as possible.

This idiom is one of a cluster of similar colloquialisms like the whole kit and caboodle, the whole enchilada, and the whole shebang. As such, it is sort of a throwaway line to suggest that something has been done to fullest extent, nothing left to do.

Origin of The Whole Nine Yards

This is one of the most talked about English idioms, and the exact origin is still unknown.

meaning of the whole nine yardsMany origin stories have developed over the years, including, the length of the fabric used in making a kilt or body shroud, the length of aircraft machine gun belts in World War II, the cubic yards in a grave or a cement truck, the expanse of sails on a three mast schooner, and many more.

Many of these theories have been dismissed largely because they conflict with facts of what is known about the phrase or because they did not appear in verifiable print.

Among the Ideas debunked are that it stems from the length of the fabric used in making a kilt or body shroud, the cubic yards in a grave or a cement truck, and the expanse of sails on a three mast schooner.

The earliest known use of the phrase is from The Mitchell Commercial, a small town newspaper from Mitchell, Indiana. The quote comes from its May 2, 1907 edition,

  • This afternoon at 2:30 will be called one of the baseball games that will be worth going a long way to see. 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.

This newspaper has many of the early sources of the phrase, including another use in its June 4, 1908 edition,

  • Roscoe Edwards and wife returned Wednesday evening of last week from Saltillo where they had been visiting Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Cook. While there Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads. He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards.

the whole nine yards originAlso, it has recently been discovered that in and around the time The Mitchell Commercial was using the whole nine yards, other publications were using the whole six yards.

For example, this is from a May 7, 1912 edition of the Mount Vernon Signal:

  • But there is one thing sure, we dems would never have known that there was such crookedness in the Rebublican [sic] party if Ted and Taft had not got crossed at each other. Just wait boys until the fix gets to a fever heat and they will tell the whole six yards.

Researchers have recently discovered several instances to the whole six yards in newspapers from the 1910s, making the exactly number seem less relevent, and, thereby, invalidating many of the previous origin stories like the length of fabric or a machine-gun belt.

By the 1960s, it appears the phrase we know use today the whole nine yards, was firmly established, both in its meaning and number (the number 9).

In Robert E. Wagner’s “Man on the Thres-hold” in the 1962 Fall edition of Michigan Voices,

…then the dog would catch on and go ki-yi-yi-ing from one to the other of the shouting pyjama clad participants 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, the whole damn nine yards and Marjorie with her credulous countenance which allowed him to tell her with perfectly straight face…

A December 1962 Letter to the Editor of Car Life admonished, “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.”

A 1964 report on NASA slang terms, “Talking Hip in the Space Age” by Stephen Trumbull appeared in the April 18th San Antonio News and Express and the April 25th Tucson Daily Citizen. It reported, “Give ’em the whole nine yards” meaning an item-by-item report on any project.”

And, in her Vietnam Era The Doom Pussy (1967), Elaine Shepard wrote, “Slipping out of the knot was expensive but Smash was eventually able to untangle what he called ‘the whole nine yards.’”

Examples of The Whole Nine Yards

phrase whole nine yardsToday, this expression is used to say that something has been done to the greatest extent possible.

If you are going to an auto detailer to get your car cleaned up, the salesman might tell you that his shop will give you the whole nine yards, indicating that they will go over every nook and cranny of your car until it is completely clean and detailed.

More Examples

  • If you wanted to go the whole nine yards, you might set up a spotlight and install a rotating color wheel to shine in varied hues on all that aluminum sparkle. –Orlando Sentinel
  • “I don’t want to be the Grinch,” said Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a nonprofit watchdog group that monitors government spending. “It’s a nice gesture and thank you for something very important, but does that mean we need to provide the whole nine yards forever?” –The Wall Street Journal

Summary

The Whole Nine Yards is an American idiom with an undetermined origin.

Its first appearance in print dates to the early 1900s. It does not refer to a physical length so much as the effort and resources expended in completion of a task or goal.