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Where Did “The Whole Nine Yards” And Other Sayings Come From?

A U.S. Boeing B-29A Superfortress bomber arrives at Duxford airfield Cambridgeshire, 3rd February 1980. The aircraft has been flown to Duxford from America to join the collection of historic aircraft on show at the airfield. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

We all use clichés in our daily language. Little sayings we rely on to make our point more clearly than our own thoughts. But where did these common idioms come from? Did the words just roll off someone’s tongue or were they carefully thought out and meticulously arranged by great sages of the day? Here are some common phrases and how they worked their way into our everyday conversations.

Going The Whole Nine Yards

This common phrase means to give it your all. Go all out. Do your best. But where did it originate?

Fighter pilots in WWII were the first to give “the whole nine yards.” They were issued machine gun ammo belts that were 27 feet long, or nine yards. Gunners who emptied their belts were said to give the enemy “the whole nine yards.”

Jaywalking

Most of us have probably illegally crossed a street in the middle of the block committing the crime commonly known as “Jaywalking.” Did the name come from some habitual criminal crossing guard nemesis named Jay?

This term comes from Jaybirds who entered bustling cities from the tranquil quiet of their forest homes. This culture shock of traffic and humans in large numbers caused the Jaybirds to behave erratically in the streets. So people begin to refer to those darting in and out of traffic while crossing the street as “Jaywalkers.”

More of Something Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Many sayings originated on the prairies of America down on the family farm. Sheepherders used dogs and long sticks to herd their sheep from one part of the pasture to another. If the Shepard had more sheep than he could handle it was said that, “he had more sheep than you could shake a stick at.” Over time it referred to too much of anything.

Saved By The Bell

This didn’t come from the teen TV show of the mid eighties. To many people in colonial times being “saved by the bell” was very serious indeed.

At the time medicine was not all it could be and some people were afraid they might be misdiagnosed and be buried alive. To prevent this premature demise, coffins were attached to a bell above ground that the not so recently deceased could ring and be “saved by the bell.”

Being Caught Red-Handed

Often laws are the genesis of some sayings. If you were caught butchering an animal that wasn’t yours you would have to be caught with the animals blood on your hands or “caught red-handed” to be convicted of the crime. Just having fresh meat in your possession didn’t cut it, so to speak.

Showing Your True Colors

In today’s conversation this saying means to show the person you really are. Bare your soul so to speak. But why are colors involved?

During the heyday of sailing warships they flew various countries flags to confuse other warships as to their true identity. But if you were going to fire on or otherwise attack or attempt to board another ship the rules of war stated that you had to “show your true colors.”

Some Final Thoughts

Words are our thoughts expressed out loud but sometimes our brains have a problem putting the right words together. It’s nice that someone from our past took care of that problem for us. They came up with just a few words that speak volumes. I guess that’s why these sayings have endured for so long. What’s your favorite phrase or saying and where did it come from?

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