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Quarterdeck anachronism?

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Quarterdeck anachronism?

Post by Roly on Sat 12 Dec 2009, 18:39

I am presently reading the Kydd series, of which I was ignorant until I came here to find more HNF.

I just finished Quarterdeck and have Tenacious on hold at my local library. I find Mr. Stockwin's writing to be very well done, and in fact have to start m' sheets a bit & reef down, in order to mitigate Wifely criticism in the way of time spent entertaining myself.

The only thing I have noticed that struck me as odd so far is Stockwin's use of the term, "...the whole nine yards," on pp 188 of my edition. I was under the impression that that term was invented by an American warplane pilot. From internet search: ....."Perhaps the most frequently quoted is from the Second World War, where it is suggested that to "go the full nine yards" was to fire an entire aircraft machine-gun ammunition belt, nine yards in length."

Has anyone other knowledge of this?

Thanks, Roly


Last edited by Roly on Sat 12 Dec 2009, 20:52; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : spelling)

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Re: Quarterdeck anachronism?

Post by pipester on Sun 13 Dec 2009, 03:09

The article below is from Michael Quinion's wonderful website, www.worldwidewords.org. (Everyone should subscribe to his free weekly newsletter!) Although the 27-foot ammo belt may not be right, it seems that Stockwin has indeed committed an anachronism.

But nine yards of what?

There are some queries that we answerers of questions on the story of the English language get asked more often than others. “What is the third word ending in gry?” has come top of the list by a good margin. But “Where does the whole nine yards come from?” runs it a close second.

This has long been one of the great unsolved mysteries of modern etymology. What we have known for some years is that the phrase is recorded from the 1960s, is an Americanism (it’s nothing like so well known in Britain, for example), and has the meaning of “everything; all of it; the whole lot; the works”.

What is most remarkable about the phrase is the number of attempts that have been made to explain it. This may be because it’s an odd expression. But perhaps our need to make sense of this saying in particular is because it came into existence only during the lifetime of many people still with us, and so lacks the patina of age that turns phrases into naturalised idioms that we accept without question.

While looking into it, I’ve seen references to the size of a nun’s habit, the amount of material needed to make a man’s three-piece suit, the length of a maharajah’s ceremonial sash, the capacity of a West Virginia ore wagon, the volume of rubbish that would fill a standard garbage truck, the length of a hangman’s noose, how far you would have to sprint during a jail break to get from the cellblock to the outer wall, the length of a standard bolt of cloth, the volume of a rich man’s grave, or just possibly the length of his shroud, the size of a soldier’s pack, the length of cloth needed for a Scottish “great kilt”, or some distance associated with sports or athletics, especially the game of American football.

Few of these have anything going for it except the unsung inventiveness of compulsive explainers. For example, a man’s suit requires about five square yards of material; anyone who thinks a soldier’s pack could measure nine cubic yards is dimensionally challenged; and I’m told it takes ten yards to earn a first down in American football, not nine.

One particularly bizarre story that turns up more frequently than any other is that it represents the capacity of a ready-mixed concrete truck, so that the whole nine yards might be a reference to a complete load. It does seem rather unlikely that a term from such a specialist field would become so well known throughout North America, but one or two writers are convinced this is the true origin. However, the capacity of today’s trucks varies a great deal, and few of them can actually carry nine cubic yards of concrete. Matthew Jetmore, a contributor to the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup, unearthed evidence from the August 1964 issue of the Ready Mixed Concrete Magazine that this could not have been the origin: “Whereas, just a few years ago, the 4.5 cubic yard mixer was definitely the standard of the industry, the average nationwide mixer size by 1962 had increased to 6.24 cubic yards, with still no end in sight to the demand for increased payload”. That makes it clear that at the time the expression was presumably coined the usual size was only about half the nine (cubic) yards of the saying.

Another relates to the idea of yards being the long spars on a ship rather than units of measurement. The argument is that a three-masted ship had three yards on each mast for the square sails, making nine in all. So that a ship with all sail set would be using the whole nine yards. The biggest problem here is dating — by the time the expression came into use, sailing ships were long gone; even if the phrase were fifty years older than its first certified appearance (unlikely, but not impossible), it would still be right at the very end of the sailing-ship era, and long after its heyday. Other problems are that big square-rigged sailing ships commonly had more than nine yards and that the expression ought in that case to be all nine yards rather than the whole nine yards (the same objection can be made about other suggestions that involve numbers rather than areas or volumes). Another attempt at relating the expression to sailing ships has it that nine yards is somehow related to the area of canvas, but a full-rigged ship had vastly more than nine square yards of sail.

Yet another explanation is that it was invented by fighter pilots during World War Two. It is said the .50 calibre machine gun ammunition belts in an aircraft of the period measured exactly 27 feet. If the pilots fired all their ammo at a target, they would say that it got “the whole nine yards”. A merit of this claim is that it would explain why the phrase only began to be recorded after the War.

All the early references are linked to the Vietnam War and this has led a few researchers to suggest an association with the Montagnards, the hill tribes of Vietnam who joined the war on the US side and who suffered grievously as a result. It is sometimes said that there were nine tribes, and that the US Army commonly abbreviated their name to Yards. So: the whole nine Yards. The problem with this is that there are actually more than nine groups of Montagnards and there’s no clear evidence the phrase was ever used in this way.

After many years of puzzlement and false leads, we seem to be approaching the answer, which may by an odd twist combine several of these stories by connecting aircraft, Scotsmen and the kilt, and Vietnam.

Barry Popik, a New York researcher, found that an early user of the phrase was the US Navy pilot Captain Richard Stratton, who became one of the best known prisoners of war in North Vietnam during the conflict. Captain Stratton has clear memories of having heard it at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, in July 1955, in reference to a risqué story (which you will find on Barry Popik’s site) about the fictional Andrew MacTavish and his courtship with Mary Margaret MacDuff.

We must be cautious, since this is anecdotal evidence, and memory can be very fallible, especially that far back. But, if true, the origin lies in a mildly dirty joke, which I can’t help finding incongruous in view of all the earnest attempts that have been made at explaining it.
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anachronism or not....

Post by Roly on Mon 14 Dec 2009, 03:57

Thank you, Mr. Pipester.

Interesting mystery. I would vote for the ammo belt story. I know nothing of kilt yardage, though I be 50% Scot; and I encountered Montagnards when I was in Vietnam, but never heard of a, "Nine Yards," reference. The term Yards did exist for these people, but seems a bit like Wogs for rudeness. I, in fact, smiled and called the Montagnards I met, "Sir."

In 1969 I was in a US Navy bus travelling from one base to another outside of Danang. A group of about a dozen Montagnard irregulars, armed to the eyebrows with exotic firearms and edged weapons, waved the thing down for a ride to town. They appeared to be visiting the lowlands far from their own villages. Speaking neither Vietnamese nor English, they were small young men, one of whom had a puppy in hand, who looked like nobody to mess with. The petty officer driving was, of course armed, as were I and others on the bus, but none of us felt like challenging these guys, who fortunately just wanted a ride.

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Re: Quarterdeck anachronism?

Post by pipester on Tue 15 Dec 2009, 02:52

If it's not too much of a digression, I'll add that some of my students are from Montagnard refugee families. They are rather fierce-looking, but they are hard-working and have learned English faster than most immigrants. They are determined to attend university, and I am sure they will succeed.
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Re: Quarterdeck anachronism?

Post by Astrodene on Wed 23 Dec 2009, 09:52

I know Julian does a lot of research on 'Salty sayings' so thought I'd ask him about this one.

His response:
There are a number of explanations that have been suggested for this term, but I believe it does probably derive from the sea/ships. A ship-rigged vessel (square sails on all three masts) therefore has nine yards in all. There were, of course, sometimes more than nine yards but the expression has become a general one meaning using everything available.

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