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Warren Clements

The whole nine yards of what, exactly? Add to ...

A recent discussion of “dressed to the nines” prompted some readers to suggest a connection with the expression “the whole nine yards,” a figurative phrase meaning the full distance or every possible effort. Lynn Coady used it in The Globe’s Group Therapy column last June, advising a reader to “throw an intimate post-wedding potluck for your pals in finest grad-student style (matching cutlery, cloth napkins – the whole nine yards).”

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If there were a prize given for the expression that prompts the most varied guesses at its origin, “the whole nine yards” would win hands down. (Winning hands down originated in horse racing, when a jockey coasting to a win would relax the reins and lower his hands as a gesture of confidence.)

Unfortunately for the debate, but fortunately for those trying to get to the heart of the matter, Patricia O’Conner tackled the subject in her book Origins of the Specious. She raised and dismissed many of the proffered explanations for the phrase: that the nine yards referred to the length of the ribbon of bullets on a warplane, or the spars and masts on a clipper, or the number of cubic yards of concrete in a concrete mixer.

She then cited British word expert Michael Quinion, who had considered and debunked several other putative origins: that the yards referred to “the fabric needed for a nun’s habit, a three-piece suit, or a Scottish kilt; the capacity of a coal-ore wagon or a garbage truck; the length of a maharaja’s sash or a hangman’s noose; the distance between the cellblock and outer wall of a prison; and any number of measurements having to do with sports.”

If your favourite explanation is among those, I apologize. However, O’Conner revealed that five years ago philologist Sam Clements (no relation) found what stands as the earliest printed mention of “the whole nine yards.” It appeared in The San Antonio Express in Texas, in an article on April 18, 1964, about slang used in the U.S. space program. “Give ’em the whole nine yards,” the newspaper said, means “an item-by-item report on any project.”

There was no mention of why the report would take nine yards, an omission that suggests somebody simply plucked the figure out of thin air because it sounded harmonious and persuasive – and, perhaps, because the U.S. space program tends to think in large amounts.

Until someone comes up with an earlier printed reference to “the whole nine yards” – the Oxford English Dictionary stalls at 1970 – Sam Clements’s find trumps the other contenders.

Talk in a recent column of the phrase “That will put the cat among the penguins,” a mangled version of “cat among the pigeons,” touched a responsive chord. Bill Dawson recalled his son’s innocent invention, at 10, of the phrase “That will really throw the cat at the pigeons,” which quickly became a family saying.

Gord Forsythe saluted the phrase, “If you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the frying pan.” Michael Gillespie recalled a Thanksgiving dinner at which someone mentioned that, “on the previous Friday night, her friend was ‘drunk into Bolivia.’” (You travel through Oblivion and turn south.) He suspected the phrase was not original, and he appears to be right. Malaysia’s New Straits Times, for one, included it in a 2002 list of mangled words and phrases encountered by teachers.

John Kirby noted that another way to corrupt an expression is to deliberately reverse it. “Thus, psychologists often say ‘believing is seeing’ to indicate that you may often see what you think is there, even if it isn’t. Or, as I once said when asked to apply for a job in which I would have painful colleagues, “That would be like putting a pigeon among the cats.”

The final word goes to Jim Volk, who was intrigued by “cat among the penguins.” That, he said, “would have to be a polecat.”

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