29 December 2012

Wholly Six Yards

Back in 2007, I was fairly certain that the mystery of “the whole nine yards” had been solved, with citations starting to focus on Cold War military aviators.

But today’s newspaper brings news that Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Fred Shapiro have found the phrase “the whole six yards” used the same way in American newspapers from the 1910s and 1920s.

Those periodicals are the Mount Vernon (Kentucky) Signal and Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal, suggesting that the phase was invented in the upcountry South. As for the growth from “six” to “nine,” Shapiro suggests that was “part of the same ‘numerical phrase inflation‘…that turned ‘Cloud 7’ to ‘Cloud 9’.” (In other words, our phrases may go to eleven.)

The imprecise number, furthermore, suggests that the number was never important to the phrase: there’s unlikely to be something six yards long to find. Rather, people spoke of “six yards” or “nine yards” to invoke the power of specificity itself.

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