Going the Whole Nine Yards?

 
By this logic, firing a whole sub-machine gun magazine would be ‘giving them the whole eight inches’…
Snopes have recently updated their entry for the origin of ‘The Whole Nine Yards‘, and as they rightly point out, it’s pretty much the case that whatever you think it comes from, it doesn’t. I do have a few comments though. Firstly, there’s one other reason why the machine-gun belt explanation can’t be true that isn’t covered; that there is no standard-length belt of that measurement for any machine-gun, air or land service. Despite this and the other good reasons given by Snopes and others (notably a total lack of references for it anywhere), it remains one of the most popular explanations. Even the Smithsonian have repeated it as fact.

The other, more important thing has to do with their suggested real origin for the saying – a lewd ‘joke’ about a Scotsman’s penis…I mean kilt. Having discounted the idea that it arises from the kilt per se, they end the article by referring to said joke/story. As an apparently American joke, featuring a Scottish stereotype and not rooted in historical reality, it would overcome the problem of all the early written references being American in origin. It also doesn’t require that a kilt actually be a standard nine yards in length (it isn’t).


However, I have a couple of issues with this. Snopes state that the story is ‘of uncertain age’, yet the version they give is in very modern English, and must have come from somewhere traceable. Yet they give no date whatever – nor any source for the version they reproduce.


Their source would appear to be the claim here (recounted version of the story here) by US Navy Captain Richard Stratton, who remembers first hearing it in 1955, just a few years before the phrase as we know it appeared in print (1962 according to Snopes, or perhaps slightly earlier). However, aside from this, I can’t find any evidence that it’s a traditional story at all. In fact it seems to be an original song with a known writer and a copyright date of 1991 (and a performance date of 1990). Now, it’s possible that this is a version of an existing folktale of some sort as Stratton’s memories suggest, but if so it’s pretty poor form to claim words penned by ‘Traditional’ or ‘Anon’ set of words as your own. More discussion on the song/story question here. More likely is that it is based on an off-colour joke of relatively recent vintage that was current in Stratton’s day. He may well be correct in remembering both this and the contemporary use of the phrase, but have wrongly assumed that the two are related. The phrase as ‘punchline’  not only seems like an afterthought, but a total non-sequitur. At least the song version sort of makes sense, though it doesn’t specify ‘nine yards’ and isn’t itself claimed to have anything to do with the phrase. I just don’t think that this claim is any more convincing as an origin for the phrase than any of the others that Snopes list. I’m not alone.


Finally, I might actually have a contribution to make here, though it does admittedly run counter to the presumed American origin of the phrase. The U.S. is, however, a nation of immigrants with a language (and a good deal of folklore) in common, and I think the gap in written sources not insurmountable. It’s also quite possible that, as the story was preserved as an oral tradition in Scottish Gaelic, it could have made the jump straight to American English without ever passing into British English. But I’m starting to speculate here.


I came across the following during past research on this same subject. It’s a Scottish (funnily enough, though kilts don’t factor) folk-tale entitled ‘The Stupid Boy‘, collected by a Miss Dempster in 1888. Its opening subject is a nine yard length of cloth, the successful selling of all nine yards being key to the story;

‘There lived once on a time in Sutherland a widow, who had one son, and he was a very stupid boy ; so stupid that he could not be trusted out of sight, and that he had no idea how to buy or sell. One day his mother had nine yards of home-spun to sell ; and there was a market within a few miles of her, at which she wished to show it for sale ; but she could not go herself, and had no one to send but her son, and she thought a great deal how she was to prevent him doing something stupid with it, and being cheated. At last she thought that as the fair lasted three days she might send him every day with three yards, and that he could not go far wrong in getting a price for so small a quantity.’
Dempster, 1888. ‘The Folk-Lore of Sutherland-Shire’, The Folk-Lore Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1888), pp. 149-189

It would have been particularly neat had the boy’s magical revenge taken place after he’d sold the ‘whole nine yards’ rather than just six out of the nine, but you can’t have everything. I’m not suggesting this as definitive, mainly because there is such a huge gap between this story being written down (and no doubt it is far older than 1888) and the first written appearance of the saying proper. We’d expect some sort of ‘missing link’, particularly as with the latter we are talking about a different country. Nonetheless, it’s by far the earliest relevant instance of the idea, if not the actual phrase. Even if Stratton’s origin is accurate, ‘The Stupid Boy’ still pre-dates the kilt story/song as a specific reference to the idea that a total of nine yards of something is somehow significant, and is not in itself incompatible with Stratton. As with everyone else who’s ever speculated on this question, I doubt we’ll ever know if it’s actually significant, but it’s interesting if nothing else.


So, what’s the real answer to the question? It’s another ‘we don’t know’, I’m afraid. Whatever quibbles I have with the Snopes article, we certainly agree on that.