Not that I am calling you a liar, but I would like to dispute your answer to the question posed in a recent column regarding the origin of the term “the whole nine yards.” It is not a nautical, coal, or ready-mix term but rather relates to the clothing industry. It is a term that tailors used for denoting the extent that one wishes to invest in a custom-made suit. It takes exactly nine square yards of material to create a man’s three-piece suit. If an individual desires a suit that is tailored to the “hilt” (double lined, etc), he would request that the tailor should proceed with “the whole nine yards.” Anything shy of that would mean various alterations, thus lessening the overall quality of the suit. My source: Howell J. Malham, father, friend, and personal adviser. His credentials: Noted sharp dresser and business executive, Michigan Avenue, Chicago. His experience: 35 years. –Chris Malham, Tempe, Arizona

I think I can answer the one about “the whole nine yards,” though I can’t recall my source. The phrase comes from, of all things, wedding veils. In olden days, any bride who really wanted to impress the neighbors (and whose father could foot the bill) simply had to have a veil nine yards in length. Take a look at the Princess Di wedding pictures and you’ll see what I mean. Anything less was, well, something less. Hence the phrase originally applied to fancy, blowout weddings–“the whole nine yards.” –Betsy Dorminey, Washington, D.C.

It is at times like these that Cecil wishes he had gone into a respectable line of work, such as numbers running, which at least lends itself to definite results. That’s a lot more than you can say for free-lance etymology. I’ve looked into both theories outlined above, and while I’m skeptical, neither can be flatly ruled out.

The amount of cloth required for a man’s three-piece suit varies with the man, but the average is about 4 to 4 1/2 yards measured off a 30-inch bolt. Since cloth for men’s suits is generally sold “double-width,” meaning it’s folded in half before being put on bolts, our actual cloth size is 60 inches wide. This works out to 6 2/3 to 7 1/2 square yards of cloth, well shy of the nine yards we’re after, even for a good suit. (The fact that a suit is top quality doesn’t mean it uses more cloth than the run-of-the-mill variety; if anything, according to one tailor I spoke to, custom-made suits use less cloth, since there’s less waste during cutting.)

I talked to a number of tailors, one of whom had been in business 40 years, and none had heard the expression “the whole nine yards” used in connection with the men’s clothing business. However, a seamstress did opine that once upon a time cloth for men’s coats had been sold on single-width bolts. Four and a half yards of double-width cloth presumably equals nine yards of single-width, so she cast her vote for Pops Malham’s theory. Fine by me. I’d hate to give a boy reason to doubt his dad.

It’s pretty much the same story with bridal veils. The longest veil seen nowadays is generally 180 inches, or 15 feet. But a saleswoman at one bridal shop (Nieman-Marcus’s) confirmed that years ago your basic last-days-of-Pompeii-type wedding might in fact feature a 27-foot veil. She herself believed that this was the origin of the expression “the whole nine yards.” Lady Di’s train was 25 feet long; allowing a couple extra feet for the veil (which attaches to the head, as opposed to the train, which attaches to the waist) we come up with nine yards.

We are thus faced with an apparent case of linguistic parallel development–an expression that three different industries (ready-mix concrete, bridal wear, and maybe men’s tailoring) claim as their own. With all respect to the Teeming Millions’ fathers, the only thing that will settle the issue is published citations–examples of “the whole nine yards” in use in books and periodicals, the earlier the better. You got one, send it in. We’ll get to the bottom of this yet.

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