To the editors:
Regarding your question as to the origin of the phrase "the whole nine yards" [The Straight Dope, April 10], I submit the following:
The phrase has its origins not in concrete, coal or sailing ships, but in the humble general store of bygone days. These stores sold just about everything a family could possibly need, including fabric. (Store-bought clothes were a luxury.) Imbedded in the counter were small brass nails three feet apart, which were used to measure off yards of material, which usually came in bolts of nine yards. If one was in need of only a few yards of material, one would "get down to brass tacks" and buy the desired amount. If, however, one needed a large quantity of fabric, to make Christmas presents perhaps, then one would just say "give me the whole nine yards."
While this answer is apocryphal, as are the others, I feel it is more logical and believable than the others in that phrases from the local gossip center would be more likely to enter, the language than would jargon from what are essentially specialized trades. How many other phrases have come to us from the ready-made concrete industry?
James P. MacQuarrie