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Familiar Expressions of Unfamiliar Origin

While chatting online with a friend today about language, I ran across this wonderful list of expressions we use everyday with potentially nautical origins, including “by and large,” “the whole nine yards,” “jury rig,” “taken aback,” “windfall” and “toe the line.”

September 12, 2005 / Uncategorized


Dan says…

on first pass reading this, I thought you said words with “potentially naughty origins”. Somewhat anti-climactic [bad pun not intended] then to find that “by and large” relates to wind-lines and “the whole nine yards” relates to sail size. *sigh* back to your regularly scheduled monday morning…

“Potentially” nautical is right — Patrick O’Brian novels don’t exactly count as solid etymological evidence. Often these are anecdotes of questionable origin that sound so good that people believe that they’re true and pass them on.

To this day I’ve never seen a convincing origin story for “the whole nine yards” — to its credit, the site lists some of the alternative explanations. Cecil Adams’s “The Straight Dope” has a good series of columns and letters on this.

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