November 12, 2007

Great moments in antedating, part 2: all nine yards of goodies

Back in June I reported on a newly discovered citation for the expression "the whole nine yards" from April 1964, two years earlier than what had previously been the first known appearance of the phrase. It was a small but significant antedating of an idiom whose origin remains surprisingly mystifying, despite its relatively recent vintage. Now, once again thanks to the American Dialect Society mailing list, we have news of another incremental step backwards in the "nine yards" paper trail. This time around it's Bonnie Taylor-Blake who has made the discovery, hunting down a lead on Google Book Search to find this passage from a letter to the editor in the December 1962 issue of Car Life:

The letter writer, one Gale F. Linster of Decatur, Georgia, refers to "all nine yards of goodies" in a decidedly offhand way. As Bonnie wrote in a follow-up post, this seems to indicate "the letter-writer's and editor's nonchalance about the expression and their implicit confidence that the figurative use of 'all nine yards of' would be easily understood by readers of Car Life." It also moves us away from the various theories that "all/the whole/the full nine yards" had a military origin of some sort, for instance that it had to do with the nine yards of ammunition carried in a fighter plane (not to mention more fanciful explanations). Mr. Linster could have been a military man, but his usage appears in an entirely generic context, as a way of describing the full extent of "goodies" or optional features on a Chevy Impala.

Thus, despite all the theorizing about the provenance of "nine yards," it appears that the phrase merely began as an exaggerated way to describe a long "laundry list" of items, not necessarily some material like ammunition or fabric that can be measured in yards. On the ADS list, Doug Wilson suggests the image here is that of a long list of features on a window sticker at an auto dealership. So "nine yards" could simply refer to the length of an itemized list of this sort, with "nine" a more or less arbitrary figure for hyperbolic purposes.

I should note that this discovery is typical of how Google Book Search now provides limited assistance to participants in what Erin McKean recently called "the competitive sport of antedating." Bonnie Taylor-Blake happened upon the relevant volume of Car Life but had no way of determining the precise context or even the correct issue and page number because of the limitations of Google's "snippet view." Fortunately, the metadata for this record includes accurate volume information ("v.9 1962-1963"), which allowed Bonnie to zero in on the correct page in a library copy of Car Life. (She was gracious enough to send me the page scan that I have excerpted above.)

I resorted to much the same tactics when locating early citations for the "crisis = danger + opportunity" meme in issues of the missionary journal Chinese Recorder from 1938. The moral is that Google Book Search can be an extremely powerful research tool, but very often it must be complemented by intensive library investigations. At least, that's how things will be until improvements are made to the implementation of "snippet view" and to the accuracy of bibliographic metadata. Caveat lector.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 12, 2007 11:45 PM