The whole nine yards: Nine reader theories for the phrase's origin

Whole 9 yards sign Image copyright Thinkstock

The whole nine yards. It's come to mean giving it your all. But what does it refer to? Readers think they know.

In his examination of slang, lexicographer Jonathon Green says it's unclear where the whole nine yards comes from.

Most suggestions, he says, involve standards of measurement, from the dimensions of a nun's habit to the capacity of a cement truck and the length of an ammunition belt to that of a hangman's rope. However, few, when checked, actually run to nine yards.

"Your guess, dare I admit, maybe be even better than mine" he says.

So here are your guesses.

1 The whole... ammunition belt

The phrase "The whole nine yards" is derived from American airmen in the Pacific during World War Two. At that time, the ammunition belts loaded into the wings of the fighter aircraft were nine yards in length - oft times a returning pilot would convey to his fellow pilots and ground crew the intensity of battle by merely saying, "I gave him the whole nine yards."

John Sly, Yardville, New Jersey, United States

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But Nigel from London thinks it came from an earlier machine gun:

I always believed this came from the length of the ammunition belt of a Vickers machine gun. When testing the gun before World War One, the term used was "to give them the whole nine yards"

Nick Mercer from England thinks it's another type of weapon:

I have always heard it refers to the length of 50mm ammunition loaded into each cannon on American planes in WW2 so that the enemy aviator if pursued relentlessly got "the whole nine yards" of a belt of ammunition.

2 The whole... distance to get a goal

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In American football, if a team in possession of the football gain only one yard on first down, they face having to gain nine more yards in the next three plays to receive another first down, which enables them to keep possession of the ball in their drive toward a goal. So, when only a paltry one yard is gained on first down, the team's fans would love to see the team, on second down, get "the whole nine yards", hence the expression used more broadly in American culture, "He got the whole nine yards!"

David Caldwell from Dallas, Texas

3 The whole... rigged ship

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I heard that the "whole nine yards" was a nautical term. I was told that a yard is the cross-piece from which the sail hangs (as in yard-arm). A three-mast ship with three sails on each could get up quite a speed if they were all unfurled. Hence the "whole nine yards" was going all out for it.

Andrew Trotter, Ellisfield, England

Stephen Powell in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, explains more:

There are nine cross-members on a square-rigged ship of the line; the "yard arms", or "yards". I always thought "the whole nine yards" meant the ship fully rigged, with all nine "yards" festooned with sails.

4 The whole... bolt of fabric

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When something is done with no expense spared it was compared to a woman using the whole bolt of fabric to make a dress. I've always associated it with the American and Canadian West, where in the early days frugality was the norm.


5 The whole... proper kilt

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I thought that the whole nine yards related to the maximum length of material in a Scottish man's kilt. It's normally about eight yards but for someone of large girth then the whole nine yards is used.

John K McGregor, Edinburgh

Robert Hill in Londondoesn't think it just refers to a large man:

My understanding of the term "whole nine yards" came from the quality of Scottish kilts. A proper quality kilt is made from nine yards of material - any less and it is inferior quality.

6 The whole... a traditional Sari

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I suspect it might be from India where women used to wear a sari which was nine yards long - quite long, indeed! The use of the nine-yard sari was widespread during the Raj, but it is now a dying breed. The sari that is seen commonly these days is five yards long. One has to go to remote villages in certain parts of the country to find elderly women wearing nine-yard long saris.

M Desai, Sutton, Surrey

7 The whole... day's work for a miner

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When I visited a coal mining museum a few years ago, we were advised that the amount each miner was allocated to work on each day (long before mechanisation) was nine yards. So, if they achieved their daily goal and got it all out, they had had done the "whole nine yards". That makes sense to me.

David Smith, Coventry, England

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8 The whole... roll of carpet

I can't find any evidence for this, but somebody once told me that "the whole nine yards" refers to the length of a standard roll of carpet.

Richard Taylor, Didcot, UK

9 The whole... roll of film

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This comes from the early days of the movie industry when the shortest length of film stock you could run through the processing (developing/fixing) tanks was nine yards. So if you were shooting, say, a test shot, you might as well shoot nine yards of film, rather than anything shorter.

I discovered this when working in Hollywood where the term is still in regular use. I guess it is similar to "the whole hog".

Paul Barrett-Brown, Montgomery, Powys

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