Friday, August 28, 2015

"Nine Yards" - "Cut from Whole Cloth" or "Too Long"? - a "Whole Nine Yards" Update

Third Epistle to Edwin.

Sir, - Your last “nine yards” would be unworthy of notice, as it commences with a falsehood and ends with a lie . . . .    I will not attempt to follow you through your “nine yards” in all its serpentine windings, but confine myself to one or two points more, and compare.

Democratic Banner (Louisiana, Missouri), December 4, 1850, page 1.

The casual, yet cryptic, use of ‘nine yards’ in this newly unearthed reference[i] has renewed speculation about the murky origins of the well-known idiom, ‘the whole nine yards; the ‘holy grail’ of American etymology.[ii]  Does this “nine yards” illuminate the origin of “the whole nine yards”; is it consistent with other theories of the origins of ‘the whole nine yards’; or is it a red herring?

Professor Gerald Cohen, editor of the journal, Comments on Etymology, reads “nine yards” here as a reference to the length of Edwin’s most recent letter.  I have other ideas.

If “nine yards” is a length of cloth and a lie is “cut from whole cloth,” then “nine yards” in reference to a letter that “commences with a falsehood and ends with a lie,” might be a clever allusion to a “lie, cut from whole cloth.”  Or is that too clever?  Professor Cohen finds the reference too subtle to be believable. 

Several other references to “nine yards” of cloth from the same period, however, suggest that readers of the time may have understood “nine yards” to be a reference to a piece of cloth.  If so, the reference would not have been as subtle then as it seems to a modern reader.  In addition, the possible use of “nine yards” to refer to the length of Edwin’s letter would itself have been subtle at the time, perhaps too subtle; similar idiomatic use of lengths measured in yards in reference to the undue length of speeches, letters, or other documents does not appear elsewhere in print until more than twenty years later.  And, in any case, it would have been odd for Kennedy to harp on Edwin’s long-windedness; the Third Epistle, itself, is three columns long – the same length as Edwin’s letter.

If the “nine yards” at issue here is a reference to a piece of cloth, as other references from the period suggest it may be, then it may be one more piece of evidence to bolster the proposition that “the whole nine yards” is derived from a standard length of fabric.  If the “nine yards at issue here is a reference to the length of Edwin’s letter, then we are left with several questions; why “nine” yards, what was so long about Edwin’s letter, and why was “nine yards” set apart in quotation marks and left unexplained?

Both readings are problematic; but which one is true – and which is “cut from whole cloth?”


The origin of “the whole nine yards” (attested from as early as 1907) has long been uncertain, resulting in various suggestions: the length of WWII aircraft ammunition belts, the volume of a cement truck, and the length of material in a Scottish kilt/Indian sari/Japanese kimono/Victorian dress/burial shroud/ silk scarf.  The ammunition belt and cement truck theories are clearly incorrect; the idiom is older than both military aircraft and large, mechanized dump trucks.  As for the various fabric-related theories, they encountered skepticism due to a paucity of evidence, but that situation is now changing.  

Recent scholarship suggests the idiom may be based on standard, nine-yard lengths of fabric that were commonly available for retail purchase during the decades leading up to the first use of the idiom.[iii]  The evidence that fabric was routinely sold and used in standard, nine-yard lengths, on several continents, over the span of several decades, may unite all of the various, specific fabric-related ‘whole nine yards’ theories  into a sort of grand, unified theory of ‘the whole nine yards.’


The Third Epistle to Edwin was one of a series of five letters[iv] by William K. Kennedy, the Mayor of Louisiana, Missouri, calling out city councilman Edwin Draper for alleged lies and falsehoods made by Draper in an anonymous letter published in another newspaper; “the Record of the 20th Sept., signed ‘Common Sense,’ alias ‘Old Ball,’ alias Edwin Draper.”  Draper’s letter accused Mayor Kennedy of illegally exercising a mayoral veto to block legislation related to road and bridge construction.  Mayor Kennedy believed that the City Charter gave him the veto power; Draper argued that the ‘original intent’ of the ‘framers’ of the Charter was to deny the mayor veto power.  The language of the Charter was apparently ambiguous on the subject.

The Louisiana City Charter was drafted in 1849.  Edwin Draper and his attorney apparently took the lead in drafting the specific language of the Charter; drawing primarily from the language of St. Louis, Missouri’s Charter.  The final language was approved in committee, approved in a public vote, and subsequently passed into law by the Missouri State Legislature.

Edwin Draper claimed that his original intent in drafting the charter was to deny the mayor veto power.  Mayor Kennedy, on the other hand, who participated in the debate and passage of the charter, believed that the language of the charter established the veto power, regardless of Draper’s personal intent.  He argued that Draper’s purported intent was not made clear to the public during debate on the matter; and, even if Draper personally intended to eliminate the veto power from the Charter, his undisclosed intent was not binding on the voters who were unaware of the intent, and did not share his understanding of the relevant portions of the Charter when they approved the Charter.

The First Epistle enumerated five specific ‘falsehoods’ Edwin Draper made in his original anonymous letter.  The Second Epistle claims that Draper’s response to the First Epistle (apparently published in a different newspaper) admitted to three of the five falsehoods in his response to the First Epistle.  The Second Epistle then lists at least one additional falsehood made by Draper in that first response.  The stage was set for the use of ‘nine yards’ in the Third Epistle.


The Third Epistle to Edwin opens by disparaging Draper’s ‘last “nine yards”’ as ‘beginning with a lie and ending with a falsehood.’  Kennedy does not ‘attempt to follow [Draper] through [his] “nine yards” in all its serpentine windings, but confine[s] [himself] to one or  two points more, and compare[s];’ after which he exposes several more alleged falsehoods.    The ‘last “nine yards”’ referred to here may be Draper’s response to the Second Epistle (published in the same newspaper as the three Epistles[v]); the response ran to three full columns of the paper.

At first blush, the use of ‘nine yards’ to describe a lie appears unrelated to nine yards of fabric.  When read in light of another idiom, however, it may be directly related to fabric.  If a piece of cloth is ‘nine yards’ long, and a lie is, ‘cut from whole cloth,’ then ‘nine yards’ may be a clever allusion to a lie.

OED3 presents whole cloth, nn., item b
fig. or in fig. context, esp. in phr. cut (etc.) out of (the) whole cloth , used in
various senses; now esp. (U.S. colloq. or slang) of a statement wholly fabricated or false.’

OED3’s examples start at 1579, but the ones pertaining to ‘a statement wholly fabricated or false’ begin later, viz. 1843:[vi]

1843 C. Mathews Various Writings 68   Isn't this entire story.. made out of whole cloth?

1897 Fortn. Rev. July 140 Absolutely untruthful telegrams were manufactured out of ‘whole cloth’.

The idiom ‘cut from whole cloth’ was common and current in the 1850s (with slight variations, e.g. ‘made out of whole cloth’).  A representative sampling from the hundreds of uses of the idiom from the period of the excerpt at issue, illustrate how the phrase was then used and understood:

…it is a base slander – a genuine whisky lie, made out of the “whole cloth”      
[italics added] in the Ohio Statesman office.

The Ohio Organ of the Temperance Reform (Cincinnati Ohio), October 7, 1853.
Such is the demand for this kind of news, that occurrences the most trivial are made to appear as treasonable, the imagination of some knights of the quill are tasked to the utmost to manufacture out of whole cloth [italics added] tales of horror and bloodshed, so eager are they to minister to this depraved taste that they are never at ease, unless forsooth, they are chronicling some “awful accident,” some startling rumor, which they are anxious to scatter broadcast through the land.

Edgefield Advertiser, April 19, 1848, p. 1.

Falsehood must be manufactured out of whole cloth [italics added]…

Anti-Slavery Bugle (New Lisbon, Ohio), January 7, 1848, p. 2.

Now, this is simply a wanton, gratuitous falsehood – “a lie of the whole cloth” [italics added].

Jeffersonian Republican (Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania), September 7, 1848, p. 1.

That allusion he has manufactured out of whole cloth [italics added] and bears his lie direct he dare not deny it . . . .

The Democratic Pioneer (Upper Sandusky, Ohio), November 2, 1849, p. 2.

It is now generally understood that the romance so ingeniously gotten up . . . concerning the Africanization of Cuba, is a story made out of whole cloth
[italics added].

Glasgow Weekly Times (Glasgow, Missouri), November 24, 1853, p. 3:                         

Of course, the use of ‘nine yards’ to refer to a lie ‘cut from whole cloth’ would only make sense if ‘nine yards’ were a commonly understood reference to a length of cloth.  As it turns out, the phrase, ‘nine yards,’ does appear to have been a commonly understood reference to a length of cloth during the same period.

There were several ‘viral’ (at least by mid-19th century standards) jokes or anecdotes in circulation during the 1840s and 1850s in which ‘nine yards’ was used in clear reference to a length of material.  In some instances, the phrase, ‘nine yards [of some particular material])’ was used figuratively, to refer to the woman wearing the material:

Superwoman Weaves “Nine Yards”:

From the Charlotte N. C. Journal:

Beat this who can. – “The hand of the diligent maketh rich.”  -A few days ago, a lady living on the Banks of the Catawba River, wove nine yards of cloth [italics added], after which, before she went to bed, she spun four cuts of yarn, and the next morning she had twin children (her first) and doing well.

Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, South Carolina), March 19, 1840, page 2.[vii]  

“Nine Yards” of Cloth is a Woman:

Several anecdotes circulated from 1853 and into 1854, in which ‘nine yards’ of some specific cloth referred to a woman wearing nine yards of cloth.  In some cases, the material was delaine (a form of Merino wool); in others, calico:

Courting. – One of the most delicate avocations that some young men have, is when they have made up their mind that nine yards of calico [italics added] is an essential and necessary requirement to their happiness and comfort in this mundane sphere.  While to others it is a second nature, born in the animal, and they engage in the pleasing task as if by instinct.  To them there is something in the idea of “speaking your mind” to a female that causes an indescribable thrill of delightful anticipations.  So at least we are informed by different persons, and “what is in every body’s mouth be true.”

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 21, 1853, page 3.


DeLaine and Love. – The local of the Albany Transcript states that no man under thirty-five can sit beside nine yards of delaine [italics added] without becoming afflicted with the palpitation of the heart.

The Ohio Union (Ashland, Ohio), May 25, 1853, page 4.[viii]  Even Mark Twain approved of the joke; a seventeen-year-old Samuel Clemens used the item in one of his first columns as sub-editor of the Hannibal Daily Journal.[ix]


‘The best “mixture” for a sick heart is nine yards of calico [italics added], fine broadcloth, four armsful of humanity, a parson’s certificate of matrimony, a pair of canary birds and a bundle of green-house hollyhocks.  People disposed to doubt the recipe should get a box.’

Nebraska Palladium (Bellevieu City, Nebraska), November 15, 1854, page 1.[x]

The experiences of our youth strengthens the impression that there’s more real enjoyment in one quiet evening with nine yards of calico [italics added], than in three ten-strikes, eleven gin-slings, four plates of oysters, five gates taken off the hinges, seven signs pulled down, two hours’ sleep and a headache the next forenoon.

The Opelousas Courier (Opelousas, Louisiana), March 18, 1854, p. 2.

The Knoxville papers announce the name of Col. Samuel R. Rodgers . . . as a candidate for the office of Chancellor . . . .  But we have an insuperable objection to him . . . . He is an incorrigible old bachelor – one who has toddled along through life, solitary and alone, without having made his mark upon society, or done any thing for his country or posterity. . . .  Nothing short of an immediate conjunction with nine yards of calico [italics added] would do the Col. Any good if we lived in his district.

The Athens Post (Athens, Tennessee), April 28, 1854, p. 2.

Muggins, in relating his experience of the pleasures, vanities, and vexations of life, says there is more real, unalloyed enjoyment in one quiet evening with nine yards of calico [italics added] than any other institution he ever met with.  A most sensible man is Muggins.

The Athens Post (Athens, Tennessee), March 17, 1854, page 2.

Modern girls are easily made. – Nine yards of calico [italics added], several curls, a pink saucer, a pair of flesh colored gloves, a bottle of cologne, three adjectives, and a tattling tongue, are a full complement.

Fayetteville Observer (Tennessee), January 12, 1854, page 4.


Another possible reading of ‘nine yards’ in Kennedy’s Third Epistle to Edwin, is as an exaggerated description of Draper’s earlier letter.  I have seen similar imagery used elsewhere, but none earlier than 1872.  Early examples of the construction include:

Woodhull’s letter of acceptance is a model of brevity only three yards long. (1872);[xi]
In addition, there was a row of charming subpoenas . . . ending in a gorgeous old speech about four yards long. (1873);[xii]

A North Carolina investor writes a letter nearly a yard long. (1880);[xiii]

Mr. Ker should go into retirement until he learns that a speech may be a thousand yards long and yet not be a great one. (1883);[xiv]

In his letter of acceptance, which is four yards long… (1884);[xv]

I could tell him so to his face, if his prayers were three yards long. (1886);[xvi]

It has a greater effect than a speech a yard long. (1888).[xvii]

All of these early instances refer to something being some number of ‘yards long.’  It seems unlikely to me that ‘nine yards’ standing alone, without ‘yards long,’ would have been idiomatic more than twenty years earlier, in 1850, at a time when no similar responses have been found.  


All of William Kennedy’s Epistles expressly address Edwin Draper’s various enumerated falsehoods.  If ‘nine yards’ is understood as a reference to cloth – and therefore ‘whole cloth’ – and therefore a falsehood, the expression is consistent with the subject of each of the Epistles.  

None of William Kennedy’s Epistles, apart from the possible ‘nine yards’ reference, address or complain about the undue length of Edwin Draper’s letters.  Curiously, the Third Epistle itself is the same length as the letter to which it responds.  If ‘nine yards’ were understood as a reference to the undue length of Edwin Draper’s letter or letters, it would not be consistent with the subject matter of any of the Epistles; and would also smack a bit of “the pot calling the kettle black.”

The use of ‘nine yards’ to refer to a lie may not have been as subtle in 1850 as it seems now.  It would have been consistent with other contemporary use of ‘nine yards’ as a reference to fabric or to a woman wearing fabric.  If ‘nine yards’ were understood as an allusion to fabric, it seems plausible that it may have been intended as a reference to the idiom, ‘cut from whole cloth,’ which was common and idiomatic at the time.

Using lengths measured in yards to refer to the undue length of speeches, letters, or other documents, does not appear to have been common or idiomatic in 1850; at least the printed record (as far as I can tell) does not reveal it.  Such references first appear after 1870; and even then, they refer to something as, “[so-many] yards long;” not, “[so-many] yards,” standing alone.  The possible use of ‘nine yards,’ set apart in quotation marks and without explanation, to refer to the length of Edwin’s letter would have been at least as subtle as using it as a reference to a length of fabric implicitly cut from whole cloth

Although it cannot be said with certainty, that ‘nine yards’ was a subtle allusion to nine yards of ‘whole cloth,’ reading the phrase in that light makes an otherwise opaque allusion clear. 

UPDATE: October 16, 2015

When I first posted this piece, I was unable to find examples of idiomatic use of "so-many yards long" to describe lengthy pieces of writing.  However, an item in the October 2015 edition of Comments on Etymology (Volume 45, Number 1) alerted me to the existence of "petitions" described as four or six "yards long" from 1847.

I was aware that such references might undercut the argument made above, which was premised, in part, on the fact that I had not found any examples of the idiomatic use of lengths, given in yards, to describe lengthy letters, poems, prayers, or speeches.  I had not noticed the yards-long petitions; so I figured I should check them out.  What I found, however, was that these early yards-long petitions may not be as relevant to a lengthy letter as they first seem.  In every case of yards-long petitions that I could find before 1870 (searching for "yards long" and "yards, long and petition" within ten words of each other) the length of the "petition" was used to emphasize the number of people who signed the petition; not the length of the underlying text.

Here are the eight earliest examples I found:

Mr. Clay presented a petition (several yards long,) signed by almost all the business men of St. Louis, for a National Bank.
    The Madisonian (Washington DC), June 19, 1841, page 3.

Mr. Kennedy of Maryland presented a petition 56 yards long, signed by NINE THOUSAND and NINETY FOUR [(emphasis in original)] citizens of Baltimore . . . .
    Rutland (Vermont) Herald, April 26, 1842, page 3.

The Temperance people of the city of New York, made a grand movement last week, and secured the signatures of over twenty-five thousand persons [(Emphasis in the original)] to a petition . . . .  The Temperance petition was two hundred and eighty-seven yards long [(Emphasis in the original)].
    Jeffersonian Republican (Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania), April 3, 1845, page 2.

Was it true that no petitions had been offered praying the interference of Congress in the manner proposed by the bill?  Why, he begged leave to exhibit that petition - [unrolling an immense scroll containing some hundreds of names.]   He supposed that the petition was about four yards long. [A laugh.]  There was another some six yards long - and another - and another - being altogether over a thousand signatures. [(Note: The bracketed portions appeared in the original)]
    The Daily Union (Washington DC), January 21, 1847, page 2.

 Mr. Mangum presented a petition, which, he said, he was informed on most respectable authority was signed by a large number of the members of the bar . . . .  The subject came to them in an imposing form, [the petition was about four yards long,] and he hoped that it would receive the consideration of the Judiciary Committee. [(Note: The bracketed portion appeared in the original)]
    The Republic (Washington DC), May 15, 1850, page 2.

Mr. Chandler, by leave, presented a petition from citizens of Philadelphia, which he said was seven yards long, in favor of the enactment of the homestead bill . . . .
    The Daily Union (Washington DC), April 25, 1852, page 2.

 Mr. Jacobs. - I have in my possession a petition five yards long from Baltimore mechanics, whose business has been injured by free-negro competition.
    The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, Maryland), February 15, 1860.

The petition is about a hundred yards long, says the Traveller; is a foot in diameter when rolled up, and contains about 14,000 names.
    Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, February 1, 1861, page 1.

In every case, the primary emphasis was on the length as indicative of popular support; not indicative of how long the underlying text was.  Granted, two of them do not specifically describe the large numbers of signors; but in each, the suggestion of wide support seems implicit ("citizens of Philadelphia;" "Baltimore mechanics").  I have still not seen any pre-1870 examples of the idiomatic use of yards-long lengths to describe the undue length of letters, prayers, poems, speeches or any other document.

And, again, every one of these examples uses the expression, "yards long" - none of them refer to "(some-number of) yards," standing alone; as was the case in the Third Epistle to Edwin.  The absence of regular use of "nine" or "six" in conjunction with the lengths of petitions may also lessen any presumed relevance of the usage to the idiom, "the whole nine yards."

None of this is proof, of course, that "nine yards" in the Third Epistle to Edwin was NOT a reference to the length of Edwin's earlier letter; but it at least suggests that references to petitions so-many yards long do not necessarily suggest that "nine yards" (as used in the Epistle) would have been understood as a reference to the length of the letter.

At the very least, the meaning is ambiguous.  But the suggestion I made above, based on documented idiomatic use of "nine yards" to refer to lengths of cloth (or by extension to women wearing nine yards of cloth, and perhaps (?) to lies "cut from whole cloth"), is not necessarily weakened by the early yards-long petition references.

[i] This item, first noticed by Richard Bucci, an editor for the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley, was brought to the attention of the American Dialect Society by Richard Fred Shapiro, Editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, in a post on the American Dialect Society’s Listserv message board (ADS-L), dated April 27, 2015. 
[ii] Jennifer Schuessler, The Whole Nine Yards About a Phrase, The New York Times online, Books, December 26, 2012 (quoting Ben Zimmer).
[iii] Peter Reitan, Origin of The Whole Three/Six/Nine Yards: The Sale of Cloth in Multiples of Threes was Common in the 1800s and Early 1900s, Comments on Etymology, Volume 44, January 2015; Nine Yards to the Dollar – the History and Etymology of “The Whole Nine Yards, Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog, February 9, 2011 (
[iv] Democratic Banner (Louisiana, Missouri), September 23, 1850, page 3 (Introduction to the  Epistles to Edwin); Democratic Banner (Louisiana, Missouri), October 2, 1850, page 2 (First Epistle to Edwin); Democratic Banner (Louisiana, Missouri), November 6, 1850, page 1 (Second Epistle to Edwin); Democratic Banner (Louisiana, Missouri), December 4, 1850, page 1 (Third Epistle to Edwin); Democratic Banner (Louisiana, Missouri), January 20, 1851, page 3 (A Sequel to the Three Epistles to Edwin).
[v] Democratic Banner (Louisiana, Missouri), November 18, 1850, page 2.
[vi] The expression dates to at least 1819: see, for example, Daniel Parker, Proscription Delineated, Hudson, New York, Published for the Author, 1819, page 123 (“I informed Mr. Beach the story was entirely new to me, and I knew not from what it could be framed. . . . . [T]he story was framed out of whole cloth.” (Italics in original)); Universalist Magazine (Boston, Massachusetts), Volume 9, Number 46, May 3, 1828, page 181 (“Do our religious opponents, by inventing falsehoods “out of whole cloth,” and circulating them with an industry that would become a better cause, think by such means to convince us and the world that they are Christians?”).
[vii] See also, The Columbia Democrat (Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania), April 4, 1840, page 3; Salt River Journal (Bowling Green, Missouri), May 9, 1840, page 4 (Bowling Green, Missouri is very close to Louisiana, Missouri).
[viii] See also, The Nashville Union (Tennessee), May 17, 1853, page 2; Spirit of the Times (Ironton, Ohio), May 17, 1853, page 2; Hannibal Journal (Hannibal, Missouri), May 26, 1853, page 2; Wilmington Journal (Wilmington, North Carolina), August 12, 1853, page 4.
[ix] Minnie M. Brashear, Mark Twain: Son of Missouri, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1834, page 131 (citing the Hannibal Daily Journal, May 23, 1853.
[x] See also, Plymouth Advertiser (Plymouth, Ohio), December 8, 1854, page 4.
[xi] The Donaldsonville Chief (Donaldsonville, Louisiana), July 6, 1872, page 1.
[xii] The Pulaski Citizen (Tennessee), January 23, 1873, page 3.
[xiii] The Wellington Enterprise, February 4, 1880, page 4.
[xiv] The Evening Critic (Washington DC), May 10, 1883, page 4.
[xv] The Hocking Sentinel (Logan, Ohio), July 24, 1884, page 2.
[xvi] Sacramento Daily Record-Union (California), January 1, 1886, page 4.
[xvii] The Emporia Weekly News (Emporia, Kansas), September 20, 1888, page 2.