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The Straight Dope



Where does the expression "the whole nine yards" come from? Even Walter Payton has to make ten yards for a first down. Since when does nine yards equal 100 percent effort? I trust your answer is not sexual. No enhancer I've ever seen advertised promises anything like that. --Russell Ewert, N. Magnolia

Don't get smart, Russell, not that there's any great danger. The usual authorities are silent on this topic, so Cecil has been trolling for leads on radio talk shows. This has turned up numerous theories, some of them pretty ingenious, in a dim sort of way.

One guy told me that the expression comes from the nautical term "yard," meaning one of the horizontal poles that hold up the sails on a square-rigged sailing ship. A typical ship, he claimed, would have three masts with three yards apiece, or nine yards in all. A captain who had sent up all the canvas he could in order to squeeze out max velocity would thus be said to be giving it "the whole nine yards." Maybe, but I doubt it. For one thing, sailing ships often had 12, 15, or even 18 yards. For another, "whole" in this context is a funny choice of words. "All nine yards" would make more sense.

Others have told me that coal trucks in New England originally had three sections that contained three cubic yards of coal apiece. If you anticipated a truly ghastly winter, naturally you asked for the whole nine yards. More commonly, however, you hear that the expression comes from the capacity of ready-mix concrete trucks, which supposedly contain nine cubic yards when fully loaded. This view was recently advanced by William Safire in his "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine. I wrote to Bill inquiring about his sources for this claim, but all I got by way of reply was a postcard congratulating me on my interest in language. This did not strike me as real responsive, somehow, but perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye.

Pending further illumination on that score, I have checked with several ready-mix companies, and they tell me that while drum size on concrete trucks varies (the drum is what holds the concrete), capacity generally ranges from seven to ten yards, with nine a rough average. In short, we could be onto something here. But I'm skeptical. I note that the ready-mix business dates back only to the late 40s and early 50s, so all we have to do to disprove the concrete theory--something disturbs me about that juxtaposition, but never mind--is to find an earlier citation. I shall endeavor to do so, but if the Teeming Millions want to help out, be my guest.

Why haven't they found a way to concentrate sound waves the way lasers do with light? --Jim Carrigan, Portsmouth, N.H.

This is surely kismet, Jim. Most physicists whom one approaches on this question ramble on about light and sound being fundamentally different phenomena and say that "stimulated emission of radiation"--the essence of lasers--has no counterpart in the world of audio. However, shortly after your letter arrived, I received a note, from Stephen Wilson PhD of Applied Intelligent Systems in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that holds out some hope. Steve takes issue with the discussion in my book, The Straight Dope: A Compendium of Human Knowledge, on whether, if all one billion Chinese yelled at the top of their lungs at once, we could hear them in the U.S. I thought the question too dumb to be worth answering, but Steve offers the following conjecture:

"Through a cooperative research effort between enthusiastic physicists such as myself and skilled choir directors, we may be able to take the top 10 percent of the best singers in our population and teach them such perfect harmony that we can create a gigantic biohumanoid coherent acoustic laser! [My emphasis, his exclamation point.] If they can sing low enough, about thirteen octaves below middle 'C,' we can use the wave guide effect of the captured atmosphere, and I think we could get over 60 thousand miles out of them. Think of the weapons possibilities."

I think he's kidding, but you never know with these Michiganders.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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