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Chris -- 2018-04-11
We have an expression or a cliche, call it what you will: We say, “to the Nth degree,” when we mean, “a lot.” This N is the mathematical symbol for, “some very large number” (over 600,000 Google hits).
Today, on the “Tell Me More” radio program, I heard Cheryl Corley of National Public Radio say, “to the NINTH degree.” I believe she meant, “Nth.”
However, when you Google “Ninth Degree,” you find over 33,000 hits. There are Ninth Degree Masons, Ninth Degree Blackbelts, and Ninth Degrees of Latitude and Longitude, plus more.
If Ninth Degree means “to the power of nine,” it would be a very large number, even though it would not be as large as, “to the power of n.”
I believe this is sort of a boring Eggcorn. Am I right?
There are 753 unique hits for “enth degree”, and oddly enough quite a few have an apostrophe before the ‘e’ as if there were some arcane bit of language-law requiring the ‘t’ of ‘tenth’ to disappear when preceding the word ‘degree’. Not that far-fetched really – some BrEnglish speakers pronounce the ‘h’ of ‘hotel’ except when it’s preceded by an ‘an’. So, for some at least, ‘Nth degree’ may mean ‘tenth degree’ rather than ‘ninth degree’. Not so boring after all Tom. I wonder what else we can do with it?
Of course all the dogs BIN take on are temperament tested to the ‘enth degree but taking on an unknown bully with a small child could be a recipe for …
www.dogpages.org.uk/forums/lofiversion/ … 04671.html – 20k – Cached
Although having helped brew a double IPA loaded and dry hopped to the ‘enth degree as well, I do know it will turn out nothing but murky. ...
beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/1199/17538 – 39k – Cached
The thrill of seeing all of your other friends who are wound up to the ‘enth degree jumping up and down waiting for the neighborhood parade to start. ...
kellyology.blogspot.com/2007/11/its-not-over-til-fat-lady-sings-and-she.html – 91k – Cached
I contacted a number of mainstream and blogs in hopes that this gets publicity because it is an outrage to the ‘enth degree. I cannot tell you how much this …
www.talkleft.com/story/2005/10/24/723/34589 – 85k – Cached
So, some believe it is 10, rather than 9, rather than n. The N is so much more N-finite than the others, so much cleverer. But who knows where it started?
Does anyone know the origins of “dressed to the nines”? And also, what is the origin of “the whole nine yards”? I figure it’s a sports reference, but to what sport? Football? And why nine yards? And then of course, there is “on cloud nine.” “Nine” must have some particular significance, so perhaps that is why people pull “the ninth degree” out of Nth.
Last edited by JonW719 (2007-11-29 11:30:30)
Feeling quite combobulated.
For people interested in the origins of American idioms, the source of “the whole nine yards” seems to have become the holy grail, so there are lots of discussions of it at the usual suspects – Language Log, Languagehat, Wikipedia, etc. Googling returns lots of hits. The most recent post on LL seems like a good starting place:
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/language … 05107.html
“Dressed to the nines” is also one of those perennial etymological mysteries. The post at phrases.org.uk is interesting because it’s fairly lengthy and – of interest for our thread here – it seems to suggest a possible link with the phrase “to the ninth degree.” It’s here: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/dres … nines.html
Michael Quinions also has a “to the nines” article that seems pretty different from the one above:
Last edited by patschwieterman (2007-11-29 14:13:53)
JonW – I have not looked at all them fancy web sites that fancy administrator suggests, but I know the origin of The Whole Nine Yards:
A dump truck holds nine cubic yards of dirt. This is yer basic dump truck, the standard truck you would recognize as a regular-size dump truck. In the contruction industry, people never say, “cubic” unless necessary. So, when a dump truck comes along, the foreman tells the driver, “Go ahead and dump the whole nine yards over here.”
Hey Tom—fancy administrator here. The “truck theory” is an old one that’s no longer accepted as a likely explanation. It’s usually a concrete mixer rather than a dumptruck that people mention—standard mixer capacity today is supposedly about 9 cubic yards. But this phrase is first recorded in the early 60s, and at that time the average capacity for mixers was apparently about 6.2 cubic yards. I haven’t been able to find out any info on average dumptruck capacity in the early 60s, but it’s usually given as 10-12 cu yds today, which makes nine a bit too small. And none of the earliest mentions have anything to do with dumptrucks or concrete mixers. David Wilton deals with at least the concrete mixer part of the problem on page 36 of his book Word Myths.
Last edited by patschwieterman (2007-12-02 21:42:29)
I’ve got another fancy URL relevant to “whole nine yards” that Tom can go and not read. David Wilton has his own website with a fairly lengthy overview of the problem here: http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/more/573/
That page gives a bit less detail than the corresponding section in his book, but it provides a pretty entertaining survey of the many solutions that have been provided to this problem.
The Language Log citation provides far less background, but it’s a bit more up to date with the latest whole nine yards research than Wilton’s site—Wilton last updated it in June, and there’s been at least one edge-of-your-seat breakthrough since then.
Okay, fancy-pancy Administrator,
I read yer gull-durnd dubyuh-dubyuh-dubyuh citation this here time. And, it turns out that I am old enough to have heard some of the original “whole nine yards” utterances from the original mouths, back in the 1960s.
But this straight-from-the-mouth-to-my-ear thing makes me humble. Therefore, only a couple humble thoughts:
The expression seems to evoke Quantity rather than Length. “The Whole Nine Yards” seems to relate to abundance, rather than distance. So, I lean toward some cubic yards explanation, rather than linear yards. And that US Air Force/Vietnam connection simply could be regular American guys, who mostly used to have construction connections and backgrounds.
This may not be true anymore, but back then, all Gringoes could swing hammers and drive dump trucks. They even could fix dump trucks. Back in the 1960s, the guys in the Air Force joined up so that they would not have to be drafted into the swamp-fighting US Army. Keeping this short, they were just regular dump truck savvy guys who said regular stuff, and many of them were from the South, so that they naturally used metaphors, such as “shit-eatin’ grin” and “whole nine yards.” (Northern guys were and are not confident enough to use colorful speech,)
Anyway, I feel Northern now, not so confident in my dump truck explanation. I would love to investigate the P-51 Mustang theory (27 feet of ammo belts), since it is both a quantity and length concept. And, somebody should put some effort into the football thing, even though it is a pure length idea. Nine yards to go on third or fourth down is a universal concept in the USA.
Last edited by Tom Neely (2007-12-03 23:25:17)
I read the citations that link “the whole nine yard” to the space program in the ‘60s.
This is what I think happened:
Some guy working at NASA, thinking of “9” as a sort of ultimate number (it’s the highest possible one-digit number; after it, you get higher numbers only by combining two numbers together; nine times out of ten is sort of a lot; “9” is kind of a mathematical magic number, w/ all those cool tricks your grade school teacher gives you for adding & multiplying it, dividing it, etc.), took to saying “the whole nine yards” (perhaps influenced by the concept of “yards” as being a big measure, since it’s bigger than a foot; and football fields, which are thought of as huge spaces, and spaces that you much want to travel down, are measured in yards) whenever he meant “the whole thing.”
It was his personal quirk, but it was so useful that other people in his department started using it. And then someone went to work in another department, and used the term there, and then the OTHER department started using it.
When I worked at McCall’s, my assoc. copyeditor (approp. named Webster) created a term for the small pieces of type that are fixtures of every story: byline, photo credit, footline, folio, runover headline, main headline. He called them the “furniture.” I liked the imagery, and since we often needed to talk about those elements as a group, we used it. All our freelancers used it. He went to work at Glamour and used it there. 13 years later, I interviewed a young copyeditor, who used it. I quizzed him on where he’d worked, thinking he’d worked w/ Webster at some point. Nope. But I’m betting he worked with someone who worked with Webster.
NASA would have been an even smaller community than the NYC copyediting community, so I can imagine that useful phrase traveling pretty quickly.
In reply to Peter Forster –
“There are 753 unique hits for “enth degree”, and oddly enough quite a few have an apostrophe before the ‘e’ as if there were some arcane bit of language-law requiring the ‘t’ of ‘tenth’ to disappear when preceding the word ‘degree’.”
I doubt there are any English speakers who posit a t-deletion, but I do think the apostrophe might yield an insight into a likely interpretation on the part of ‘enth users. There are plenty of ordinals apart from “tenth” that end in “
nth” any ordinal based on a cardinal with final /n/: seventh, ninth, eleventh, and all the teens, plus any higher numbers ending with any of those. So -nth could plausibly be perceived as the prototypical ending for ordinals. Users of “to the ‘enth degree” might thus interpret it as implying a gap: “to the <number>nth degree”. If that’s right, then quite likely you’ll also find “to the ‘nth degree” (apostrophe before the <n>) but I haven’t found a way to google this.
Thanks Breffni, I hadn’t thought of that and I do believe you might be right. I’m having similar difficulties in finding examples.
It occurs to me that if this is what ‘enth users have in mind, then it’s quite like “umpteenth”, except there’s a gap for “ump” and a suffix -enth instead of ”-teenth”.
I just looked up “umpteen(th)” in the OED and I see it’s from “umpty”, which is a “fanciful verbal reproduction of the dash in Morse code.” That’s just bound to come in handy some day.
Back to “Whole None Yards:”
I have stayed away from Eggcornia for days, almost a week, until I got some real evidence from the real world. I wrote a guy I used to work with in construction. This guy, Thom, is a real muddy-boots American Construction Manager, with decades of experience and expertise. I will tell you his full name, if it makes a difference, for nailing down this expression.
Here is his e-mail response (today) to my inquiry on “The Whole Nine Yards:”
‘Yes Tom, I do remember you! Hello!
Please note that Thom says, “A full concrete mix truck holds an average of 9 yards of concrete…” Thom is a construction pro. His own assertion bowls over any Word Nerd who claims a cement mixer holds some other amount.
In addition, Thom is from the right era. He is a few years older than I, and he started in the construction business in the late 1960s or very early 1970s, possibly after a hitch in Vietnam. I really believe those US Airforce guys were using a concrete metaphor. I am adamant. I believe my argument is solid.
Last edited by Tom Neely (2007-12-07 23:26:32)
I recently came across a reference to nine yards in a book on Anglo-Saxon worship. Here’s something on the mythical Wayland the Smith who must have been a rather tall chap.
Later, Wade took his son to learn smith-craft from the giant Mimir and later from two dwarfs. Weland seems to get confused with his father in the sagas : he also is said to have “strode through water nine yards deep” with his child Widia on his shoulders.
Now ‘nine yards deep’ is not the same as ‘whole nine yards’ but both seem to indicate the sense of ‘a full measure’. Toots’ point about mathematical magic may be pertinent as may the burgeoning Christianity of those times. A trinity multiplied by a triple trinity may have had a sacred aspect , with our 27 foot, nine yard measure being especially esteemed. Particularly by boatbuilders, it would seem: 19th century whale boats were this length apparently, and 27ft remains a common size for boats to this day. The knarr was a Viking ship built for Atlantic journeys and had an average length of 54 feet (2×27). That two seems a bit unsatisfactory until we remember that maritime measure the 6 foot fathom which makes 54 feet exactly 9 fathoms.
Just as an aside, the medieval ordeal by cold water (where the those that drowned were innocent and those who bobbed to the surface – most of them, surely? – were duly executed) required the doomed subject to be immersed to a depth of one and a half cubits. An English cubit was 18 inches, making the required depth 27 inches. This nautical nineness is quite puzzling.
Aside again, I wonder why no-one has mentioned that an ITF tennis court is 27 feet wide – surely a likely candidate for a sporting source of the expression.