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The whole six yards

December 27, 2012

The New York Times has a fun article about research into the origin of the express “the whole nine yards.”  Here are some of the relevant paragraphs:

Some lexicographers thought the evidence was creeping closer to a World War II-era origin, and possibly some connection to the military, though there was still no hard evidence for the popular ammunition-belt theory. Then, in August, Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher in North Carolina who had been searching for variants of the phrase via Google News Archive and Google Books for five years, posted a message on the e-mail list of the American Dialect Society noting a 1956 occurrence in an outdoors magazine called Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground, followed in September by a more startling twist: a 1921 headline from The Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina reading “The Whole Six Yards of It.”

The somewhat cryptic headline, atop a detailed account of a baseball game that did not use the phrase, initially caused some head scratching among the society’s members. One person asked whether the headline referred to the ball fields, or “yards,” of the six teams in the league discussed in the article.

But then Mr. Shapiro, searching in Chronicling America, a Library of Congress database of pre-1923 newspapers, found two 1912 articles in The Mount Vernon Signal in Kentucky promising to “give” or “tell” the “whole six yards” of a story. Ms. Taylor-Blake also found another instance from 1916, in the same paper.

Now to me, here is the interesting part of the story – many of the key players in this search for the origins were amateurs, and they were simply using publically available databases.  In a world when when so much is online, anyone can make discoveries!

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