To the editors:
A couple of weeks ago, while passing through Chicago, I picked up a copy of the Reader, and read your column in which you were discussing possible derivations of the phrase "the whole nine yards" (The Straight Dope, April 10]. I have some thoughts on the subject.
I suspect it comes from the older expression, "the whole megillah." I have consulted the Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary, second edition, and confirmed that megillah is the Hebrew word for scroll, and usually refers to the scroll which contains the book of Esther, which is read aloud in its entirety in every synagogue on the annual Jewish holy day of Purim.
I believe I first heard the expression "the whole megillah" on TV in the 1950s or 60s. I can't remember specifically who used it, but I know I used to watch a lot of talk shows and comedians in those days, and there were a lot of Jewish comedians. None of my personal acquaintances used the phrase, but then I didn't know many Jews, either.
I first heard "the whole nine yards" maybe ten years ago. I was a computer programmer then, and it was my boss who used it, in reference to a certain request for information which we received from one of our users. I suppose he was reacting out of frustration over the fact that the request was either too vaguely worded or given on too short notice, when he said "Give them the whole nine yards."
He meant give them a complete listing of our master file, which would be a stack of accordion-fold paper about a yard high. He meant, "Give them everything they asked for, and more. Make them sorry they asked."
The ironic thing is that while it might take a lot of computer time to print such a listing, it would take almost no human effort to set up the job and get it started. It would take a lot more time to produce an intelligently designed summary or selection of relevant data. So in this case "the whole nine yards" definitely, referred to quantity of output, not quality or effort. I must have assumed that his use of the term "the whole nine yards" was idiosyncratic, because I don't remember asking him where it came from.
The second person whom I heard use the phrase was a friend of mine who was Jewish. He told me he was getting married. I asked if he was going to have a traditional Jewish wedding--standing under the canopy, breaking the glass, and so on. He said, "Yeah, the whole nine yards." This time, I asked where he had picked up the phrase.
He said he didn't know, but he had known it a long time.
If this means that the phrase "the whole nine yards" was first used by Jews, then it fits my theory that it is derived from "the whole megillah."
When you are talking about reading from a scroll, it is natural to describe it according to its physical length, hence "the whole nine yards" rather than "the whole three hours" or "the whole hundred pages" or whatever might denote an impressive quantity. "Nine" is probably an arbitrary number.
To summarize my theory, then: "The whole megillah" was first used by Jews to denote a long and elaborate ritual, performed in its entirety, with no compromises for the sake of convenience or modernism. It may have had connotations of tedium or great effort, but these were secondary. A few non-Jews may have used the same expression, but it never became very popular among them, mainly because "megillah" was meaningless to them. Then someone translated "megillah" as nine yards. This allowed it to become more popular (since nine yards obviously means a large quantity of something) but it also cut it free from its roots, so to speak, and allowed its meaning to evolve. That's probably why today you think of it primarily in terms of effort.
Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten handy, or I would have looked to see if he had any information on the subject. I advise you to look it up if you plan to write on this any further.
If you use any of this information in your column, would you please send me a copy? Since I don't expect to be traveling to Chicago in the near future, I won't see it otherwise.
Saint Paul, Minnesota