June 21, 2007

Great moments in antedating

In the search for the early history of common words and phrases, sometimes a discovery that pushes back the documentary record just a few years can be quite momentous indeed. Such is the case with an April 25, 1964 article in the Tucson (Ariz.) Daily Citizen (a recent addition to the Newspaperarchive database), which Sam Clements recently unearthed and reported to the American Dialect Society mailing list. In the article, entitled "Talking Hip In The Space Age," writer Stephen Trumbell surveys the lingo surrounding the then-burgeoning space program. In the midst of all the NASA-talk comes this paragraph:

See anything notable there? Take a look at the penultimate sentence — "'Give 'em the whole nine yards' means an item-by-item report on any project." This represents something of a Holy Grail among word sleuths: a significant antedating (i.e., an earlier citation than what is already known) for the elusive phrase the whole nine yards, meaning 'the full extent of something.'

The whole nine yards serves as a rare counterexample to the Recency Illusion: despite many theories for its origin in the distant mists of time, it has only been documented since the 1960s. (For a roundup of the theories, from Scottish kilts to concrete trucks, see Dave Wilton's Wordorigins.org, Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, Gary Martin's Phrase Finder, and Cecil Adams' Straight Dope, with further coverage in Wilton's book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends and Quinion's Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds.) Previously, the earliest known cite for the whole (or full) nine yards appeared in Elaine Shepard's 1967 book The Doom Pussy, written in 1966 about Air Force pilots serving in Vietnam. One of these pilots, Major "Smash" Crandell, is quoted as using the whole nine yards on more than one occasion in the book. There's some other scattered evidence from the late '60s supporting the idea that the phrase was first popularized in US Air Force circles before spreading to wider usage.

The newly discovered cite from 1964 lends credence to an Air Force origin, since the space program has been strongly intertwined with the Air Force throughout its history. Also, any origin theory specific to the Vietnam War (such as speculation that the "nine yards" had something to do with nine Montagnard hill tribes) now seems unlikely, since the article came out a few months before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution escalated US troop levels in August 1964.

Unfortunately, the article still doesn't help us figure out what the "nine yards" might have first referred to. I highly doubt that an "item-by-item report" was imagined to take up nine yards of paper, so the phrase had already been transferred to a figurative sense by this point. The search goes on for the original referent, and with the help of ever-growing newspaper databases I think we'll find it one of these days.

[Update: Last year, Arnold Zwicky discussed the whole nine yards as an example of the Antiquity Illusion, the converse of the Recency Illusion.]

[Update, June 26: Using Newspaperarchive (which seems to be expanding its holdings by the day), Sam Clements has found the same article appearing a bit earlier in another paper: San Antonio (Tex.) Express and News, April 18, 1964, p. 11-A.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 21, 2007 01:08 AM