Opening Statements

Yale law librarian debunks 'the whole 9 yards'

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If you thought the expression “the whole 9 yards” was inspired by football, think again, says Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro. If it were, the expression would be the whole 10 yards.

Shapiro should know. He’s become somewhat of an expert on the expression, having studied it for 30-plus years.

Along with other word scholars, Shapiro—also editor of the Yale Book of Quotations—recently found use of the term dating back to the early 1900s, including in an outdoors magazine and in newspapers from Kentucky and South Carolina. But it was “the whole 6 yards,” not 9. The references suggest a more rural provenance for the term.

The discovery also debunked another notion: That the number of yards referred to the size of World War II aircraft machine-gun ammunition belts.

Shapiro admits that there are rarely definitive answers about how expressions are created. And he still doesn’t know what the 9—or 6—yards refer to. “I believe that it may never have referred to a specific length of a specific thing, and it was only a colorful expression vaguely signifying something very extensive.”

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