Turn-of-phrase inflation.

The etymology of “the whole nine yards” is a total mystery. Anybody who tells you that they know its origin is either lying or unknowingly parroting an urban legend. The number of feet of fabric required to make a suit? Number of cubic yards of soil removed to dig a grave? Number of cubic yards of cement that fits in a mixer? The length of a WWII-era ammunition belt? Nope, none of those are it. The earliest known use of the phrase was in 1962, but now there’s been a trio of new discoveries from 1921 and 1912. Why weren’t they found before? Because the phrase was “the whole six yards.” The number was inflated over the years, much as “cloud seven” became “cloud eight” and is now “cloud nine.” The origin of the phrase is still unknown, but one potentially important clue is found in the pair of 1912 uses—both were in Kentucky. 

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

4 replies on “Turn-of-phrase inflation.”

  1. I would conjecture horse-related stuff. 6 furlongs is a common horse race length (3/4 mile), but that would be a weird thin to change to yards. Maybe the amount of pipe in a moonshine still?

  2. Hah. The moonshine still conjecture would actually be pretty awesome — it’s not actually number inflation in a colloquialism, what actually happened was that after prohibition ended, bathtub whiskey became increasingly sophisticated as distillers continued to refine their contraband product so that it would remain competitive with re-legalized mass produced liquors like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, and so the colloquialism evolved along with the backwoods hooch.

    That’s actually a good enough story that I’m going to just start telling people it’s true. To Wikipedia!

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