The whole nine yards

It isn’t often that you see an article about linguistics in the New York Times — and on the front page of the Arts section to boot! But that’s what happened yesterday, in a piece about the etymology of the expression “the whole nine yards.” The specific question — where did the expression “the whole nine yards” come from? — isn’t nearly so interesting as the fact that everyone seems to have an (uninformed) opinion on the matter. People assert, with altogether too  much certainty and altogether no evidence whatsoever, that it comes from…

the length of ammunition belts in World War II aircraft…the contents of a standard concrete mixer…the amount of beer a British naval recruit was obligated to drink…yardage in football…the length of fabric in a Scottish kilt (or sari, or kimono, or burial shroud)…

to cite a few examples debunked in the article. It turns out that…

Well, I won’t spoil the answer; you can read the article yourself. But suffice it to say that those who think they know the answer are almost certainly wrong, and a little humility in the face of evidence would help. This is the trouble with linguistics: since everyone speaks a language, and has done so for many years, everyone thinks they’re experts. But they aren’t.



Categories: Linguistics