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November 11, 2022

Have At You! The Full Nine Yards of Phrases of Mysterious Origin

Here are some old expressions, and some explanations for how they came to mean what they mean.

Note that in many cases, I doubt the explanation offered. I think in many cases, these are more stories than histories.

But some of them are true. Some of them seem true, and even some of the ones that don't seem likely to be true are interesting.

three sheets to the wind -- drunk in an out-of-control way. If a ship with three sails had all three sheets -- lines which control the sails -- in the wind, that is, loose, it was out of control. (Thanks to Jim for correcting me.)

the whole nine yards -- this explanation sounds so cool I don't believe it. It sounds like one of those backsplanations, where they make up a story backwards from the term. But popular myth has it that, supposedly, WWII fighter planes were equipped with nine linear yards worth of ammunition --
you can see where this is going -- so if you gave someone the whole nine yards, you exhausted every single bullet in your magazine against them and left yourself absolutely spent.

But... would they really measure ammunition by the yard? And which fighter planes had nine yards of ammunition? All of them? Seems to me this story would be more believable if it specified the particular fighter model that supposedly was loaded with nine yards of ammunition.

I want to believe but... I have questions. I have questions.

Wikipedia pours cold water on this cool explanation, and says there is no explanation for it: " Its origin is unknown and has been described by Yale University librarian Fred R. Shapiro as 'the most prominent etymological riddle of our time'."

Interestingly, early on in the use of the phrase, in the 1900-1920 period, the phrase was often rendered as "the whole six yards."

Another claim about its origin concerns the Vickers machine gun, whose belt of ammunition measured six yards. Well, not really -- six and 2/3rds yards, which is really closer to seven yards. So the claim is that the phrase started off as "giving them the whole six yards," all the ammo of one belt of the Vickers, and that later was inflated, due to Putin's Tax.

And also because the Vickers, when mounted in a plane as the plane's gun, actually was fed by nine yards of ammo:

However, the Vickers gun as fitted to aircraft during the First World War usually had ammunition containers capable of accommodating linked belts of 350-400 rounds, the average length of such a belt being about nine yards, and it was thought that this may be the origin of the phrase.

Unfortunately, as tasty as this is, there are references in print to people promising or giving "the full nine yards" before World War One.

Although this is not a settled explanation, it might be the answer:

The Oxford English Dictionary places the earliest published non-idiomatic use of the phrase in the New Albany Daily Ledger (New Albany, Indiana, January 30, 1855) in an article called "The Judge's Big Shirt." "What a silly, stupid woman! I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!"


Many of the popular candidates [for explaining the origins of the phrase] relate to the length of pieces of fabric, or various garments, including Indian saris, Scottish kilts, burial shrouds, or bolts of cloth. No single source verifies that any one of those suggestions was the actual origin. However, an article published in Comments on Etymology demonstrates that fabric was routinely sold in standard lengths of nine yards (and other multiples of three yards) during the 1800s and early 1900s. This may explain why so many different types of cloth or garments have been said to have been nine yards long. The phrase "...she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt" appears in 1855.

That's kind of interesting, because, putting this together, I saw claims that the expression dressed to the nines derived from the fact that cloth was sold in a measure of nine yards, so if you were dressed to the nines, you were dressed, as it were, with the full nine yards.

But that doesn't work either. That explanation for "to the nines" is a false etymology.

to the nines -- Because "to the nines" goes back quite a ways, and seems to suggest something more mystical than a tailor's shop.

Also, while in modern days we almost always use "to the nines" when talking about dress -- in fact, the expression is pretty much "dressed to the nines" now -- in earlier days "to the nines" could apply to anything, and meant perfection or fullness in many things.

The phrase is said to be Scots in origin. The earliest written example of the phrase is from the 1719 Epistle to Ramsay by the Scottish poet William Hamilton:

The bonny Lines therein thou sent me,
How to the nines they did content me.

Robert Burns' "Poem on Pastoral Poetry", published in 1791, also uses the phrase:

Thou paints auld nature to the nines,
In thy sweet Caledonian lines.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (New and Revised edition. 1981) states that the phrase is 'perhaps a corruption of 'then eyne' (to the eyes)"

The phrase may have originally been associated with the Nine Worthies or the nine Muses. A poem from a 17th century collection of works by John Rawlet contains the following lines:

The learned tribe whose works the World do bless,
Finish those works in some recess;
Both the Philosopher and Divine,
And Poets most who still make their address
In private to the Nine.

I guess the "nine yards of cloth" might still be the explanation.

the whole kit and caboodle -- everything, the lot. There are two different claims about this.

First, Grammarist.com says it's an American expression, made up of "kit," as in a soldier's kit, his gear, plus his boodle, a collection of things, which I guess would be all of his stuff that wasn't officially part of his kit, maybe? Boodle got turned into "caboodle" just to alliterate better as "kit and caboodle" and then people wrote "kit and kaboodle."

English-Grammar-Lessons.com, on the other hand, claims it's an English phrase that comes first from kith, an old English word meaning "estate." "The entire kith" means everything on your estate, your land. They then say that "caboodle" means a "kitbag." But here's the thing, I can't find any citations to back these claims up.

So this seems like a dead-end. Let's go with the first claim.

As far as I can tell, "kith" means "country," so that "kith and kin" means "homeland and clan" or "country and family." Interestingly, "kith" derives from old roots meaning "known" (as in, lands known to you) and "kin" derives from roots meaning "To give birth to".

"Boodle" may be related to "bundle" and "bundle" may be how we get "bindle," the sack on the end of a stick that hobos carry on their shoulders.

turn a blind eye to -- speaking of backsplanations, this is one I don't buy, but it is cool, so I'll relate it. The story goes that Admiral Nelson, who was blind in one eye, intended to attack a group of Danish ships. He was signaled to stop attacking by his allied British ships, but put the telescope up to his blind eye, and told his first made, "I saw no signal to cease." And he continued attacking.

I knew Italian had the same phrase, chiudere un occhio (close an eye (to)), and I thought "Well why would the Italians use a phrase based on what Admiral Nelson said?," but, apparently, they tell the same story about the phrase.

I'm still skeptical. I think the real story here is far less interesting: I think it just means, basically, "pretend not to see what you don't want to see." No additional elaboration necessary. And all this business about Admiral Nelson is a backsplanation for the rubes.

You can believe it if you want. I'm tired of these Zionist Lies.

short shrift -- a shrift is a confession, especially to a priest. I've heard this three different ways. First, if you give your priest the "short shrift," you're giving him an abbreviated, cursory list of your sins. I've also heard that this applies to the priest's instructions for penance, so if he gives you the "short shrift," he's not thinking about it very much and is blowing you off with a formulaic "say five Hail Marys and take two aspirin" and isn't properly absolving you.

I've also heard it claimed that an executioner will cut a condemned man's allowance of time to confess his sins short to keep to a schedule or to stop him from delaying, hence, "giving him the short shrift." I don't believe this latter explanation. I think it's a backsplanation. I mean, how often would this come up? Would it come up enough times to generate an expression that lasts throughout time? Doubtful. Sounds cool, though.

I think the first explanation is the correct one and the other two are More Zionist Lies.

The walls have ears -- I wouldn't have thought this one needed an explanation -- I mean, the walls listen so be careful when speaking, what more explanation is needed? -- but this explanation of Italian sayings claims that the Louvre ( a palace before it was a museum) had a system of hidden tubes in its walls permitting someone to listen in on conversations throughout the palace. Catherine de Medici, Queen of France in the 1500's, used the tubes to learn political secrets.

hair of the dog -- supposedly this comes from a medieval cure for rabies -- applying the hair of the rabid dog that bit you would cure the disease. I guess having a bit of alcohol is supposed to take the bite out of a hangover.

show your true colors -- refers to a ship flying its true colors, that is, its true flag. A pirate would usually fly a false flag to get close to its prey and, only when within combat range, fly its true colors.

This video has a bunch of old expressions, including pass with flying colors -- when ships won a battle, they would sail past port proudly flying their flags, or colors -- and nail your colors to the mast, which means nailing your flag to the mast, giving up any possibility of lowering your flag in case you have to surrender. Thus, announcing your are making your final stand.

Another one he notes is dyed in the wool. Apparently when you dyed the actual wool, it kept its color better. When you knitted the wool into a garment and then dyed it, that was "dyed in the piece," and that wouldn't produce such great colors. So you'd rather something be dyed in the wool.

He's the guy that provided that executioner-cuts-off-your-confession explanation for short shrift. I see that one popping up on the internet a lot... probably just because it makes for a grabbier story.

A wing and a prayer -- the phrase refers to Ralph Hinkley's ungainly mode of flight.

Just kidding, obviously. It refers to a situation in which there is almost no hope of success. It comes from a WWII song about a badly-damaged bomber attempting to fly home. The bomber has lost one wing, so it is "Comin' In On a Wing and a Prayer." A wing on one side, and just a prayer holding it up on the other side.

The song doesn't seem to be based on any particular incident, but may be "inspired"
by any number of incidents of heavily damaged bombers trying to get home.

Different incidents have been credited as the inspiration for the song. It is sometimes said to be based on the events of February 26, 1943, when "Southern Comfort", a B-17 Flying Fortress piloted by Hugh G. Ashcraft Jr. of Charlotte, North Carolina, was badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire on a bombing mission over mainland Europe. As it approached the British coast, Ashcraft told his crew over the radio: "Those who want to, please pray." The aircraft made it home safely. The song has also been associated with the similar survival against the odds, despite extensive damage, of another B-17, "Thunderbird", piloted by Lt. John Cronkhite, on a mission from Biskra, Algeria, over Tripoli on January 12, 1943.

The song title was used in a subsequent movie:


The movie was also not based on any particular incident.

scuttlebutt -- meaning gossip, the term is nautical in origin. It refers to a butt, or cask, which has been scuttled, that is, pierced by a hole to allow water to drain out.

In other words, the cask has been turned into a wooden water fountain, and the scuttled butt became a natural gathering place where bored crewmen could trade gossip.

blue blood -- nobles did not see a lot of sun, and their pale skin allowed the blue of their veins to show through. Thus, they were literally "blue bloods."

This doesn't have anything to do with anything, but in this article," I found these old-time euphemisms for "penis:"

"Master John Goodfellow,"

"the gentleman usher,"

"the staff of life,"

"the maypole," and, impressively,

"the Cyprian scepter."

For women's daintybits, terms once used included:

"The Phoenix nest,"

"The Netherlands,"

"Mount Pleasant," and,


"Mrs. Fubbs' Parlor." I don't know why anyone ever stopped saying that.

The article also mentions some old-time expressions for saying you're hot, hot as in overheated, not randy, but one expression included is a definitely sexual one:

"hot as a half-f*cked fox in a forest fire."

Which is amazing. Again, I don't know why we stopped saying that.

From personal reconnaissance, a good word to try to reintroduce is swive, to copulate with, to fornicate with.

Finally, to the entire reason for this post:

have at you -- meaning, "I'm going to attack you now."

I recently watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

So in the Black Knight scene, the Knight repeatedly says "Have at you!" as he attacks Arthur. And I'm sure you've read that line in book or heard it in movies set in swords-and-cilice times.

From context, it obviously means, "I'm attacking, en garde!"

But is that what it actually means?

And if that is what it means, how do you get "I'm going to attack you now" from "Have at you!" ?

Answering the questions in order:

Yes, all "Have at you!" means is Imma rock your wig back, cuz.

have at you

(dated) An exclamation indicating that one is about to strike the person addressed, typically with a sword or other hand-held weapon.

1904, J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Dark and sinister man, have at thee.

stackexchange.com also notes that Shakespeare was a big fan of characters having at other characters:

"Have at you now!" -- Hamlet

"Have at you with a proverb [...] Have at you with another;" -- Comedy of Errors

"Have at you!" -- Henry VIII

"Have at you, then, affection's men at arms." -- Love's Labour's Lost

"Then have at you with my wit!" -- Romeo and Juliet

"since you have begun, / Have at you for a bitter jest or two." -- Taming of the Shrew

"Come, both you cogging Greeks; have at you both!" -- Troilus and Cressida.

Okay so it means what we thought it meant.

But: Why does it mean that? Why does "have at you" mean "I'm attacking you"? What is being had, exactly? The attack? Blood? Satisfaction?

Unfortunately, there's not really an answer to this question. The expression is old enough that people were saying it before people were writing things down.

No one has any idea why "Have at you/Have at thee" means "I'm attacking you." They don't even seem to have any good guesses.

The phrase has been around since Middle English. The OED notes the expression, but can't explain it.


The explanations note that the expression is an ellipsis -- that words are being left out of what would be considered the full expression, the full grammatical sentence.

But what words?

"May I have at thee, if you wouldn't mind?"

Is the full statement a prayer to God, like, "If God will it, let me have my fury at thee!" ?

Is the full expression "Let me have a go at thee"?

That sounds like it makes sense, but it really just really just replaces one idiom we can't explain -- "have at thee" -- with another idiom we also can't explain -- "have a go at thee."

The latter just sounds better to us because "have a go at" is in current usage, whereas "have at" is not. But we still don't have an explanation as to what "have at" means -- what is being had? -- or, if we "have a go at" it, then what, exactly, is being gotten?

Yes we "get" it, in an idiomatic way, but how did this idiom come about? What was the literal idea they had in mind that led to this idiomatic usage?

In any event, I don't think the "Have a go at thee" explanation works, because the "have a go" expression is not attested until 1825, and of course our old friend "have at thee" is much older than that.

Now that I've wasted your time, I'll just conclude that I've overthought this. "Have" is one of the most basic words in the English language, and therefore also one of the most malleable and adaptable; it can mean a whole bunch of things, from "possess" to physically "hold" to "have sex with" or "swindle" or "beat/defeat" ("I had him!").

It also has very vague meanings like the verbs "do" or "make" have, where you really can't say what, exactly, the words mean, beyond "do the things necessary to perform an action which is suggested by the context of a sentence." For example, when you say "make a cake," it's really the word "cake" doing the work of the verb there -- "make" is filled with the meaning of "cake," and "make" takes on the meaning of "perform all steps necessary to create a cake." If the word "cake" was absent, the word "make," by itself, would be a bit of a blank.

What do "do" and "make" mean, on their own, with no nouns following them to clarify and specify their meaning? "Do homework" means something; "do" means nothing. "Make breakfast" means something; "make" means nothing.

"Have" is likewise a verb which sometimes takes on whatever meaning it needs to in context. When you say, "Can I have a look a that?", "look" is really doing the verb part of the sentence. "Have" is just along for the ride.

"Are we having a party?" "Have" turns out to mean "throwing" or "hosting" there. The word "party" gives "have" a meaning it usually doesn't, well, have.

So I guess it really shouldn't be such a mystery why a very adaptable silly-putty sort of verb like "have" can take on whatever meaning it needs to in the context of a sentence. "Have at you" -- I'm having at you. I'm going to have at you with this sword. The sword in my hand. I'm swinging it at you. You see what's going on here, I don't need to be more precise in my terminology. I'll have this sword in your stupid head in a minute if I have my way.

I guess it's pretty simple. I shouldn't have got so hung up on complicating it.

digg this
posted by Ace at 04:37 PM

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