[first posted August 29, 2003] Gideon Strauss introduced me to The Phrase Finder, another helpful etymology web site for understanding the origin and true meaning of clichés and phrases. Now, before you stop reading and rush to the site, let me tell you about the phrase you’re going to look for, “the whole nine yards.”
The phrase means “all of it or as much as can be.” If you went the whole nine yards to get something done, you did as much as anyone could do. How did the phrase come about? The Phrase Finder says, “No one knows the origin, although many have an fervent belief that they do. These convictions are unfailingly based on no more evidence than ‘someone told me’.”
There are several possible origins, but not enough evidence to back up any of them conclusively. I like what Evan Morris, the inimitable Word Detective, has to say on this. He says he likes the theory that nine cubic yards is the most a cement mixer can carry. He argues that this theory has the advantage of being concrete.
Speaking of the Word Detective, let me point you to the question I asked him earlier this year on thumbing one’s nose. It’s a small, fleeting thrill to have a question published in your better’s column. Being a small man, I’ve been quite proud of myself for months.