Law Schools

Yale Law Librarian Reopens Debate on the Origins of 'The Whole Nine Yards'

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The online debate has raged since Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro discovered an early reference that suggests a different origin for the phrase “the whole nine yards.”

Writing in the Yale Alumni Magazine, Shapiro said he had conducted an online search and found a variant, “the whole six yards,” in two articles published in Kentucky in 1912. He searched for the phrase after a neuroscience researcher discovered the variant in a 1921 article published in South Carolina.

The discovery disproves theories that the phrase “the whole nine yards” was a reference to the length of aircraft machine gun ammunition belts used in World War II. The New York Times noted Shapiro’s article last week, and since then online commenters have offered their own theories, “matched only by their total lack of supporting evidence,” the Times reported in an update at its Arts Beat blog.

“A number of readers simply repeated old canards about the length of traditional saris (or Scottish kilts), the contents of cement trucks and the quantity of sails on traditional masted ships,” the Times said. The commenters were unable to explain, however, how their theories fit with “the whole six yards” discovery or why an expression based on saris or kilts was not used in British and Indian writings.

Several readers referred to a humorous 1855 anecdote “The Judge’s Big Shirt” in which a seamstress is supposed to make three shirts, but instead uses “the whole nine yards” of cloth to make one oversized shirt. Shapiro told the Times he was aware of the reference, but it was unrelated to the “whole six yards” phrase.

Of more interest to Shapiro were two references from the Brooklyn Eagle submitted by Denver lawyer Joseph Halpern. One describes a politician’s letter as “nine yards long” and another described a different politician’s speeches as “six yards long.” But the references are probably “just a hyperbolic usage of the word ‘yard’ (documented by the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as Chaucer) plus various numbers attached to it,” Shapiro told Arts Beat.

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