Idioms: “The whole (or full) nine (six) yards” phrase

Posted By on October 30, 2022

Although the meme floating around social networks (the one at the bottom of this post) is probably not correct, I enjoyed it enough to do a little digging. Personally I’ve always thought that “the whole (or full) nine (six) yards” had to do with the innings in a baseball game (old article below), so I never really gave it much thought to it … although having in interest in sailing, I did like the nautical explanation:


One proposed origin involves the world of full-rigged sailing ships, in which yard is used not as a measure of length or size, but as the name of each horizontal spar on which a sail is hung. All square-rigged sails unfurled, with 3 yards on each of 3 masts, could then be described as the whole nine yards


The sailing theory aside, the most likely meaning to the phrase has to do with sewing and tailoring as fabric is measured in yards which is sold from “bolts.” The problem is that a bolt of fabric contains between 30 to 100 yards of fabric .. so Whole-6-yard-headlineobviously it would not mean the entire bolt?

The Oxford English Dictionary places the earliest published non-idiomatic use of the phrase in the New Albany Daily Ledger (New Albany, Indiana, January 30, 1855) in an article called "The Judge’s Big Shirt." "What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!"


According to Wikipedia, “there is still no consensus on the origin.” So we can still believe what we want to believe … and the military aviation explanation is pretty interesting.

World War II (1939–1945) aircraft machine gun belts were nine yards long. There are many versions of this explanation with variations regarding type of plane, nationality of gunner and geographic area. An alternative weapon is the ammunition belt for the British Vickers machine gun, invented and adopted by the British Army before World War I (1914–1918). The standard belt for this gun held 250 rounds of ammunition and was approximately twenty feet (6⅔ yards) in length. However, the Vickers gun as fitted to aircraft during the First World War usually had ammunition containers capable of accommodating linked belts of 350-400 rounds, the average length of such a belt being about nine yards, and it was thought that this may be the origin of the phrase.



Desultory - des-uhl-tawr-ee, -tohr-ee

  1. lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful: desultory conversation.
  2. digressing from or unconnected with the main subject; random: a desultory remark.
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