Arts & Culture

You can quote them

The inflation of “cloud seven” and the whole six yards.

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.

Mary Banas

Mary Banas

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Anyone who studies quotations and phraseology often sees a phenomenon I hereby dub “phrase inflation”: in expressions that use a number meant to be impressive, that number is likely to grow over time.

An example is Mao’s “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” now usually rendered, at least in English, as “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” Another is “cloud nine,” implying a supreme state of euphoria; slang dictionaries of the early to mid-twentieth century record euphoria on “cloud seven” and “cloud eight.” But the number eventually settled on was nine.

The number nine brings us to the main focus of this column: “the whole nine yards.” This common expression, meaning the full extent of something, has taken on huge significance among phrase mavens. Linguist Ben Zimmer ’92 calls it “something of a Holy Grail among word sleuths.”

Popular theories about the origin of the phrase, often espoused with great conviction, include the amount of cloth in a Scottish kilt, the capacity of a concrete truck, and, especially, the length of certain World War II military equipment, usually aircraft machine gun ammunition belts. But every theory must be assessed in light of the dated documentation—or lack thereof. In a previous column (May/June 2009) I reported that Stephen Goranson and Bonnie Taylor-Blake had each found a printed use of the phrase dated late in 1962. They were the earliest known citations at that time.

Recently, Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, found the saying in the July 1956 edition of Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, a magazine published by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. The magazine listed several fishing prizes and then declared, “So that’s the whole nine-yards.” “The whole nine yards” also appeared in Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground in January 1957.

Taylor-Blake’s next discovery took the research in a completely unexpected direction. Searching  Google News Archive, she found, in the sports section of the Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal of May 7, 1921, an article about a baseball game between the Spartanburg Spartans and the Greenville Spinners. With it was a more detailed, at-bat-by-at-bat description of the same game. The headline of the detailed account? “The Whole Six Yards of It.”

That headline appears to use “the whole six yards” in exactly the same sense as we now use “the whole nine yards.” I found confirmation via the database Chronicling America. An article in the Mount Vernon (Kentucky) Signal of May 17, 1912, states: “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.” And again, in the June 28, 1912, issue: “As we have been gone for a few days and failed to get all the news for this issue we will give you the whole six yards in our next.”

The aircraft ammunition belt theory seems to be disproven, along with all other World War II–related origin stories, by the presence of the idiom as early as 1912. Still, we have no explanation of why something six or nine yards long is being alluded to—of what was originally six or nine yards long. Perhaps an origin will be found in Kentucky culture, as, strikingly, the earliest known uses of both phrases are from Kentucky. Or perhaps the reference was never a specific length of a specific thing, but only a colorful locution vaguely signifying something very long. We can now at least trace the inflation that apparently led to the final formulation.

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