This theory is no longer considered viable, since the phrase predates World War I

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021

When Elon Musk recently mentioned the (apocryphal) origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards” in his interview with Dan Carlin, I assumed I’d posted about myself, but I hadn’t:

The Oxford English Dictionary finds the earliest published non-idiomatic use in an 1855 Indiana newspaper article. The earliest known idiomatic use of the phrase is from 1907 in Southern Indiana. The phrase is related to the expression the whole six yards, used around the same time in Kentucky and South Carolina. Both phrases are variations on the whole ball of wax, first recorded in the 1880s. They are part of a family of expressions in which an odd-sounding item, such as enchilada, shooting match, shebang or hog, is substituted for ball of wax. The choice of the number nine may be related to the expression “to the nines” (to perfection).

Use of the phrase became widespread in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of the interest in the phrase’s etymology can be attributed to New York Times language columnist William Safire, who wrote extensively on this question.

Since they were discussing World War 2 aircraft, Musk shared this origin story:

One explanation is that World War II (1939–1945) aircraft machine gun belts were nine yards long. There are many versions of this explanation with variations regarding type of plane, nationality of gunner and geographic area. An alternative weapon is the ammunition belt for the British Vickers machine gun, invented and adopted by the British Army before World War I (1914–1918). The standard belt for this gun held 250 rounds of ammunition and was approximately twenty feet (62/3 yards) in length. However, the Vickers gun as fitted to aircraft during the First World War usually had ammunition containers capable of accommodating linked belts of 350-400 rounds, the average length of such a belt being about nine yards, and it was thought that this may be the origin of the phrase. This theory is no longer considered viable, since the phrase predates World War I.


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “This theory is no longer considered viable, since the phrase predates World War I.”

    That assumes (without evidence) that a phrase can only be assembled once. There is no reason why the WWII pilot who stated he shot the “whole nine yards” of his ammunition belt in a single burst had to be aware of any earlier use of that phrase.

    The history of science is full of separate discoveries of the same thing (eg calculus by Newton & Leibnitz). Why should there not be separate creations of the same (or similar) phrase?

  2. Bruce Purcell says:

    Gavin, yes, and the phrase probably got a boost from pilots who read CS Forester describing a sailor flogged through the fleet and then checked his machine gun belt.

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