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Ben Zimmer: On The Whole 9 Yards And Phrase Inflation

Flickr Photo/Jesus V

Did you know that the phrase "the whole 9 yards" used to be "the whole 6 yards?" It’s true. And cloud nine, that fantastic place to be, used to be cloud seven, then cloud eight. So how did we get to nine yards and cloud nine? Ben Zimmer is back today to talk about phrase inflation as we consider our series on strange language.

The Holy Grail Of Phrase Origins
Everyone has their own explanation of where "the whole 9 yards" came from: the capacity of a concrete truck in cubic yards or the amount of cloth needed for a Scottish kilt or three-piece suit.

There are a number of explanations that have to do with World War II military equipment: nine yards being the length of a bomb rack or ammunition belt.

Latest Revelations
The latest discovery is that a Kentucky newspaper in 1912 used "the whole 6 yards" in a similar way we now use "the whole 9 yards." We now can discount the idea that it was related to WWII.

Where'd The Extra 3 Yards Come From?
Fred Shapiro, author of "Yale Book of Quotations," documents a phenomenon called "phrase inflation," where an expression uses a number and over time that number gets a little bigger. For instance, Mao Zedong's "let a hundred flowers bloom" has evolved into "let a thousand flowers bloom," which is  more impressive sounding.

Another example is cloud nine. In the mid-20th century it was cloud seven, then cloud eight, eventually we crept up to cloud nine. The origins of "the whole 9 yards" aren't really tied to any one explanation.

Do Phrases Deflate?
There's a tendency for phrases to get bigger. Why would you want to ratchet it down? If you are saying something emphatically or hyperbolically you want bigger rather than smaller. Phrase inflation doesn't go on forever, though. People eventually gravitate toward a version of it, and that's what happened with "the whole 9 yards."

Interview edited for clarity.

Produced byArwen Nicks.