The whole nine yards

The whole nine yards

The phrase the whole nine yards means completely, the whole thing, everything, e.g. I was mugged. They took my wallet, my keys, my shoes, – the whole nine yards! The origin of the phrase has been described as, "the most prominent etymological riddle of our time."[1] The earliest known examples of usage date from the early 1960s.


There is no consensus on the origin, though many early published quotations are now available for study. A vast number of explanations for this phrase have been suggested.[2][3] Though lacking in evidence, perhaps the most common explanation is that World War II (1939–1945) gunners would supposedly "give them the full nine yards" by firing an aircraft's entire ammunition belt at the enemy, the belt supposedly being nine yards long.[nb 1][3] But ammunition is normally measured in rounds,[nb 2] rarely in terms of physical belt length.[2] Moreover, this explanation does not appear in print until 40 years after the war.[4] No figurative examples of the phrase from the World War II era have been found, despite extensive searches.[nb 3][2] There are many versions of this explanation with variations regarding type of plane, nationality of gunner, and geographic area. Another common explanation is that "nine yards" is a cubic measure and refers to the volume of a cement mixer.[5] But cement mixers were much smaller in the 1960s and none of the early references relate to cement or even to construction.[6] Other proposed sources include the volume of graves;[7] the length of bridal veils, kilts, burial shrouds, bolts of cloth,[8] or saris; a very long list; American football; ritual disembowelment; shipyards; and the structure of certain sailing vessels.[9] Little documentary evidence has surfaced to support any of these explanations.[10]

Another proposed explanation is claimed--without any documentation--to date from the age of sail. Some traditional square-rigged, three-masted sailing ships had three yards to a mast, and "the whole nine yards" supposedly referred to the use of all nine yards to carry sail; in other words, to go all out.

U.S. Navy Captain Richard A. Stratton in 2005 recalled that the phrase was the punchline of a dirty joke he had heard while attending flight school in Pensacola, Florida in 1955.[nb 4][11] In the first printed reference, a short story published in 1962, the phrase is attributed to "a brush salesman."[12] A letter published in an auto magazine later that year describes a certain new car as containing "all nine yards of goodies".[13] In 1964, several newspapers published a syndicated story which explained that, "Give 'em the whole nine yards" was NASA talk for an item-by-item report.[14] This early usage can be read as suggesting length, but can also be read as suggesting detailed completeness.[15]

Two 1965 newspaper articles quote U.S. military personnel serving in Vietnam using the phrase.[16] The phrase was explained as something "teenagers say" in a military-oriented magazine in 1965.[17] Citations from 1966 show the phrase was used by a former U.S. Army airman,[18] and also in a publication for military test pilots.[19] It is also recorded in two contemporary novels concerning the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam, Carl Krueger's Wings of a Tiger (1966),[20] and Elaine Shepard's The Doom Pussy (1967).[21] The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1970.[22]


  1. ^ The Browning machine guns on Britain's Spitfire had 350-round belts of .303 British ammunition which were about 5.7 yards long.[1] U.S. aircraft generally used .50 BMG ammunition, which measured 0.929 inches center-to-center. So a nine-yard belt would have had 301 rounds. The Grumman F6F Hellcat had ammunition belts of up to 400-rounds (10.3 yards) while the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning had belts of up to 500-rounds (nearly 13 yards). Here is a picture of B-29 ammunition belts, and here is picture of a P-38's 900-pound load of .50 caliber ammunition, i.e. 2,700 rounds for four guns.
  2. ^ As in "rpg," rounds per gun
  3. ^ The phrase, though relatively rare before 1962, was used in a literal sense before it acquired its figurative meaning: "You have to increase from 7.72 to 12 for the average at the bottom of that fifth column, for the whole nine yards." Testimony by Admiral Emory Land, Investigation of the National Defense Program: Hearings Before a Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program (1942). In this case, the "nine yards" are the nine shipyards that produced the Liberty ship, an unprecedented massive production.
  4. ^ The joke is told in detail here.


  1. ^ Shapiro, Fred, "You can quote them", May/June 2009
  2. ^ a b c Wilton, Dave, "whole nine yards, the", June 21, 2007.
  3. ^ a b "The whole 'whole nine yards' enchilada", The Phrase Finder. An amusing chart is included which shows which explanations are most common.
  4. ^ Kilpatrick, James, "What's the Origin of the 'the Whole Nine Yards?'", Feb. 12, 1984.
  5. ^ Wilton, David. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-517284-1, p. 36. William Safire and James Kirkpatrick have both given the cement mixer explanation.
  6. ^ Wilton, p. 36. A 4½ cubic yard mixer was "definitely the standard of the industry" in the early 1960s, according to an article in the magazine Ready Mixed Concrete.
  7. ^ Wilton, p. 37. A grave is about 4 cubic yards.
  8. ^ Wilton p. 36. A bolt of cloth is 20 to 25 yards.
  9. ^ Wilton, p. 37. There was no standard number of yards on a sailboat, nor any citations of this phrase from the sailboat era.
  10. ^ Wilton, pp. 34–38.
  11. ^ Popik, Barry, "Communication from Richard Stratton", Whole Nine Yards, (May 14, 2005).
  12. ^ Wegner, Robert E., "Man on the Thresh-Hold," Michigan's Voices, Fall 1962. "...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."
  13. ^ Linster, Gale F., "Constructive Criticism," Car Life Vol. 9, Issue 11 (December 1962), p. 2. "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."
  14. ^ Trumbell, Stephen. "Talking Hip in the Space Age", Tucson (Arizona) Daily Citizen, April 25, 1964; "'Give 'em the whole nine yards' means an item-by-item report on any project.'(The reporter's name was misspelled in this newspaper; it is actually Trumbull.)
    Zimmer, Benjamin (2007-06-21). "Great moments in antedating". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2008-11-11. 
  15. ^ Zimmer, Ben (25 March 2009). "Where Did We Get "The Whole Nine Yards"?". Word Routes. Visual Thesaurus. Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  16. ^ Campbell, Frank D., Jr. Lt. Col, Daily Facts, (Redlands, CA), April 7, 1965, p. 6. "We got the whole nine yards, including a side trip to Panama for jungle survival." (Quote attributed to Maj Clyde B. Williams.)
    Burris, Keith, "'Burners' Are Not Informed", Deseret News, 28 December 1965, (Salt Lake City, UT), p. A11, col. 1; "Capt. Greer was on alert the night of the big Red raid on Piel Me. He said the Cong troops were extremely well outfitted with steel helmets, boots -- 'the whole nine yards of uniform.'"
  17. ^ Andrus, Col. Burton C. Jr, Assembly [magazine], Association of Graduates, United States Military Academy, v. 23 n. 3 col. 3, Fall 1965, p. 53 (55 of 100 in pdf). "We have 60 of the 120 rooms reserved so far--why not take over "the whole 9 yards" as the teenagers say?"
  18. ^ Guthrie, James M., "Sesquicentennial Scrapbook", National Road Traveler, [Cambridge City, Indiana], 30 June 1966, p. 3; "If you like "The Old Swimmin' Hole," "Raggedy Man" and "When the Frost is on the Pumpkin" you'll like this one. And J.W. Riley is only a small contributor. (But Riley would have loved the whole nine yards)." For Guthrie's biographical information, see here.
  19. ^ Technical Review, The Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Vol. 8, No. 2, p. 176 (September 1966) "Then two-engines, two pilots, and the rest, the nine yards of things that we have really all been aware of for a long time and should pay a lot more attention to."
  20. ^ Krueger, Carl, Wings of the Tiger: A novel (1966); "'Okay, Tiger,' it said. 'Give 'em the whole nine yards. Now!'" [An instruction to fire at the enemy], p. 39. "We'll go over it after de-briefing. Get me a list of all pilots and planes available. Everything. The whole nine yards." p. 57.
  21. ^ Shepard, Elaine, The Doom Pussy, Trident Press, (1967), p. 54; "Slipping out of the knot [marriage] was expensive but Smash was eventually able to untangle what he called 'the whole nine yards.'" The phrase appears several times in the book, always as the pet usage of Major “Smash” Crandell, a U.S. Air Force navigator. At one point, Smash refers to, "the ninth yard" (finishing touch).
  22. ^ See second entry for "whole", section D, The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989. Oxford University Press. The entry cites the magazine Word Watching.

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