When word sleuths go digging for the origin of our favorite puns, idioms and catchphrases, literature is usually a good starting point. (Joseph Heller coined Catch-22 in a novel of the same name; “absence makes the heart grow fonder” was a favorite sentiment of Shakespeare and poets who came before him; and “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” first appeared in Aesop’s Fables.) Another source is culture (Blowing smoke, for example, stems from a magician who uses smoke to cover up a trick). But what happens when lexicon detectives can’t quite put their finger on the birth of an idiom?
A word wild goose chase (which, if you’re wondering, was a phrase used by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, likely the bard’s take on a peculiar kind of race that used to be popular in England).
And a wild goose chase is exactly where the phrase “the whole nine yards” has been sending word historians. Over the years, people have dreamed up a ton of meanings for the common idiom: some say it refers to the length of ammunition belts in WWII, others, the yardage in football. Some think it has to do with the amount of fabric in a kilt. The phrase has inspired newspaper columns (most notably by New York Times columnist William Safire), handfuls of books, and a lot of public debate.
But decades later, word detectives may have unlocked a key to solving the greatest etymological riddle of all time: It started with six yards.
When researchers recently discovered a string of early-1900s newspaper articles using the phrase “the whole six yards,” they knew they had found evidence to debunk the ammunition belt, football field measurement and kilt yardage theories. Although the discovery hasn’t led to a firm explanation for the phrase, it will give word sleuths a new hot tip in the “whole nine yards” pursuit.
Even if we never discover where “the whole nine yards” came from, we’re contributing to word history each time we use the phrase. At some point, culture helped morph the idiom from six to nine yards, and we’ll continue to define this idiom’s history by using it in our books, blog posts and beyond. We’re all adding to the etymology databank.