Posted by: Jack Henry | October 4, 2022

Editor’s Corner: Part 2 of Idioms from Readers

Hey! You’re the next contestant on “What’s That Idiom?” I have three from the crowd out there today:

  • How the tides have turned
  • Mind out of the gutter
  • The whole nine yards

How the tides have turned

An idiom that means that someone’s luck has changed completely. It could be a change in either direction—from good to bad, or vice versa.


  • Bob used to be the luckiest guy at the local casino, but oh, how the tides have turned! He now loses money on every game he plays, even for nickels.
  • The tides had definitely turned for Mishka. She stared life in America as an orphaned immigrant, and thirty years later she’d grown her business to a $5 billion-dollar enterprise.

Get your mind out of the gutter

(slang) To stop having and giving voice to lewd, inappropriate thoughts

I couldn’t find a definitive reference, but some blogs say that this idiom has been around since the days where waste was disposed of in the filthy, dirty gutters. (Yay for underground plumbing!) That makes sense considering the people whose minds are “in the gutter,” are being accused of thinking filthy thoughts of a different biological nature—being naughty and Rated X.

The whole nine yards

Richard Sunbury taunted me with this phrase and told me it was sure to send me down a rabbit hole. Sure enough, he was correct. There are many suggestions about where it’s from, but nothing has been set in stone. Wikipedia summed up a lot of what I found in bits and pieces elsewhere. I’ve edited it for space.

"The whole nine yards" or "the full nine yards" is a colloquial American English phrase meaning "everything, the whole lot" or, when used as an adjective, "all the way."

The earliest known idiomatic use of the phrase is from 1907 in Southern Indiana. The phrase is related to the expression the whole six yards, used around the same time in Kentucky and South Carolina. Both phrases are variations on the whole ball of wax, first recorded in the 1880s. They are part of a family of expressions in which an odd-sounding item, such as enchilada, shooting match, shebang or hog, is substituted for ball of wax. The choice of the number nine may be related to the expression "To the nines" (to perfection).

There is still no consensus on the origin, though many early published quotations are now available for study. A vast number of explanations for this phrase have been suggested; however, many of these are no longer viable in light of what is now known about the phrase’s history.

· Many of the popular candidates 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.

· One explanation is that World War II (1939–1945) aircraft machine gun belts were nine yards long. There are many versions of this explanation with variations regarding type of plane, nationality of gunner and geographic area. An alternative weapon is the ammunition belt for the British Vickers machine gun, invented and adopted by the British Army before World War I (1914–1918). The standard belt for this gun held 250 rounds of ammunition and was approximately twenty feet (6⅔ yards) in length. 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. This theory is no longer considered viable, since the phrase predates World War I.

· Another common explanation is that "nine yards" is a cubic measure and refers to the volume of a concrete mixer. This theory, too, is inconsistent with the phrase’s history.

· Other proposed sources include the volume of graves; ritual disembowelment; shipyards; and American football. Little documentary evidence has surfaced to support any of these explanations.

There you have it! Three more idiomatic phrases with a little history and various theories of their origins, and I gave you the whole six yards!

Kara Church | Technical Editor, Advisory | Technical Publications

Pronouns: she/her | Call via Teams |

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