Column: Exploring the whole nine yards


Someone commented the other day after completing some arduous task that he had done “the whole nine yards.” I have long wondered where that phrase came from.

The earliest reference came from Mitchell, Ind., back in 1907. Seems the local baseball team was going to play the local businessmen for, as the local newspaper reported, “as many innings as they can stand. But,” the paper concluded, “we can’t promise the whole nine yards.”

Sadly, the paper didn’t say where the phrase came from. Maybe the reporter said yards when he meant innings? “The whole nine yards” was undoubtedly the topic of discussions at the local coffee shop for years to come.

Despite consternation in Mitchell, the phrase never seemed to gain a foothold in day-to-day discussion, at least not enough to define its real meaning. Another reference was in a fishing contest story in the “Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground” magazine in 1956. The writer listed the winners and wrapped up with, “and that’s the whole nine yards.” Again, no explanation about what nine yards had to do with fishing.

In 1963 a popular automobile magazine extolled the virtues of a new car by claiming it came with “all nine yards of goodies.” Maybe the writer laid all the goodies end to end and discovered they stretched out for nine yards.

There are a few possible sources of the phrase. In the early days of textile production, fabric was sold in nine-yard lots. A common cement mixer holds exactly nine yards of concrete. And, during World War II, standard aircraft machine gun belts were nine yards long. Pilots would hobble in from combat and declare they “fired the whole nine yards.”

Lamentably, neither the baseball game in Mitchell nor the fish story in Kentucky shed any light on the subject. And what the accumulated car goodies had to do with nine yards is anyone’s guess. However, I have my own understanding of the phrase.

When I was a kid, there were nine of us that palled around together. We played hide and seek in Joey’s yard, horseshoes in Neil’s and tag and “flying statues” in Jimmy’s. Carl’s house was at the edge of the river, and his yard was perfect for Red Rover. There was another Jimmy, but everyone called him James, and Bert and Eddie lived next door to each other and shared a yard. Clifford and Mark had small yards where we would play catch until dark and then sit on the front porch until bedtime.

And every now and then when the summer was perfect and daylight seemed endless, we would literally play all whole nine yards.