Patricia T. O'Conner on the Whole Nine Yards

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about new findings on “the whole nine yards.” She’ll also answer questions about language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is available in paperback, as is  Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.

If you have a question about language and grammar, leave a comment or call us at 212-433-9692!


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [40]

Anne in Weston from Connecticut - 1% land alas

I think Ms. O'Conner needs to spend more time outside of New York, and outside of America. Week-end is the way every French person spells it. Your 2nd caller answered in 1 second what you spent 3 minutes 'debating.'

Also, the story about the origin sleuthing was beyond dull. What WOULD be interesting is to hear her talk about fighting within the word community. That would be hilarious to imagine huge literary battles between book-toting, archives-trolling nerds. THAT, I would sit and listen to gladly. Surely, there must be some good gossip within this community?b

Sep. 20 2012 01:45 AM
caroline from Staten Island, NY

From Urban

gobsmacked meaning

Completely dumbfounded, shocked. From the Irish word "gob" meaning "mouth".

(as in) We were utterly gobsmacked when we spotted John at a restaurant on Friday night, after having attended his funeral that very morning!

Sep. 19 2012 05:58 PM
caroline from Staten Island, NY

Dressed to the Nines...

I read somewhere that dress shirts had nine buttons down the front, so you were really dressed up if you wore that shirt...

Sep. 19 2012 05:51 PM

Re: "honky." Decades ago in West Virginia, I heard "bohunk(s)" as a slur for people of European descent. On-line references say bohunk originally derived from a slur for Bohemians. Could "bohunk" have evolved into "hunk" or "hunky" and then "honky"?

Sep. 19 2012 04:18 PM
mel goldman from Hoboken

The term "whole nine yards" gained currency in the 30s in the wholesale textile industry. My uncle Ben worked for Sol Cohen Textiles during that period and recalls hearing customers using the term to purchase remnants left on textile rolls no matter how much material was left on said roll.

Sep. 19 2012 01:58 PM
Al from Marine Park from Marine Park

Why not be consistently Latin and say "mensiversary"? It sounds a lot better than "monthiversary"

Sep. 19 2012 01:58 PM
Mike Magoo from NYC

As George Carlin once thoughtfully observed, a "near miss" is anything but. A "near hit," didn't he say?

Sep. 19 2012 01:56 PM
Edward from NJ

The "nth degree" doesn't have anything to do with the number nine. The "n" is used in the sense of a mathematical unknown. It refers to an unknown but, implicitly, large number.

Sep. 19 2012 01:56 PM
Marie from nyc

What is the origin of Hit as in in "hit parade"?

Sep. 19 2012 01:56 PM
Paul from Maryland

Do we know the origin of "The Big Apple"?

Sep. 19 2012 01:56 PM
Terry Mahoney from Yonkers

n th degree seems a clear reference to math, when you raise a number to a power and n is a variable. It is very common to use n as the variable for this purpose. It is not related, I don't believe to your series of 9 questions. (Though I am curious now about the use of 9 in so many other terms)

Sep. 19 2012 01:55 PM
Ruth from Queens

"Nine" is considered a number representing "completion" -- perhaps related to 9 months, human gestation

Sep. 19 2012 01:55 PM
Tom from UWS

Pat, I'll bet that HUNKY had a relation to the word I heard as a kid in Nebraska: BOHUNK. It referred to Bohemians, Bohemia being part of Czechoslovakia in the early 20th century, and historically always a name for an area or state bordering Germany.

BOHUNK was to Bohemians as POLACK was to Poles.

Sep. 19 2012 01:54 PM
Elizabeth Errico

Note to the "wordsmith" that the term "Nth degree" has nothing to do with the number 9. "Nth" refers to an unspecified number, simply meaning it is a stand-in for any number.

Sep. 19 2012 01:54 PM

In analyzing the origin of the word "honky", you should check out its connection with the work "bohunk', meaning a Bohemian or Czech. This slang word appears in my 1946 New Century Dictionary.

Sep. 19 2012 01:54 PM
Mark from NH from NH

Why does everyone all of a sudden start a sentence with the word "so"?

Sep. 19 2012 01:53 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Maybe all these nines are similar to the .99 in so many prices, although I don't know why anyone would want to make the "nine" expressions sound lower. On the other hand, in "n" in "the nth degree" is a mathematical variable, not the number 9; I think it means a degree that's so high it can't be specified.

Does the "hunky" origin of "honky" have anything to do w/"bohunk"?

Sep. 19 2012 01:53 PM

Honky definitely originated with Hungarians. My Hungarian family heard this when they emigrated here more than 100 years ago. It was certainly common in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

Sep. 19 2012 01:53 PM
Keith Trumbo from New York City

Regarding "gobsmacked":
Used to hearing this word in the UK but just noticed it for the first time here.
Maureen Dowd's Tuesday NY Times column quoted Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard:"Conservatives knew that Romney was no Reagan, but the tape left many Republicans and Obama strategists gobsmacked."
What do you know about this word please?

Sep. 19 2012 01:52 PM
Tom Dale Keever from Manhattan

Regarding the examples of "Nine" slang.

I have read that John O'Hara submitted a story to The New Yorker in which he referred to a character being "..on Cloud Ten." He got a presumptuous editorial note pointing out that the dictionary did not have that term, but the "correct" term was "Cloud Nine."

"I do not consult dictionaries," O'Hara quickly replied. "Dictionaries consult ME!"

Sep. 19 2012 01:52 PM
Laura from UWS

3 is a mystical number. Origin in Sanskrit, word root "tri" for magic, transformation, trick, trinity.
The number 9 is special to mystics because it is 3 times 3.

Sep. 19 2012 01:50 PM
Eric from Manhattan

I know plenty of people that say LOL (pronounced lahl) as a word in spoken speech.

"Yeah, that movie was ok. I LOL'd a few times."

Sep. 19 2012 01:50 PM
Vicky Go from Bloomfield, NJ 07003

re misuse of "hoi poloi"
usingthe phrase "the maddening crowd" instead of "the madding crowd"
Lydia Bastianich this morning on Facebook says she enjoys a moment of peace & quiet having coffee w 'grandma' before she goes off to work and the "maddening" crowd.
Hardy's novel supposedly came from Gray's Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard - far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife" which in turn might have come from 2 other earlier references:
William Drummond, circa 1614:

"Farre from the madding Worldlings hoarse discords."

or by Edmund Spenser, 1579:

"But now from me hys madding mynd is starte, And woes the Widdowes daughter of the glenne."


Sep. 19 2012 01:49 PM
Jake from Manhattan

You've probably discussed this before but I think my least favorite word in the english language is "literally." It is often used when the speaker actually means "figuratively." I cringe every time I hear it. Also, I COULDN'T care less (Instead of I COULD care less).

Sep. 19 2012 01:47 PM
Laura from UWS

Hoi polloi. Might come from the Dutch. Hoi is the pronunciation for the Dutch word for HAY. (don't ask me for correct Dutch spelling though.) I got this idea from the title of a work of art I saw at the Met.....

Sep. 19 2012 01:47 PM
Rebecca from Brooklyn

When did the word "ejaculate" stop being used as another word for "exclaim"? I've read a few older books recently from the late 1800s, where they used it often.

Sep. 19 2012 01:47 PM
Tom from Lower Manhattan

The caller about 'hoi polloi' -- I'm pretty sure it meant, in classical Greek, 'the people' as opposed to 'the slaves.' That makes it hard to map to a modern society without slavery, but I do think it is meant to mean a group of people who are not the bottom of the society. I'm also pretty sure that modern categories we recognize, like rich, super-rich, middle class, etc., didn't mean much to the ancient Greek city-states.

Sep. 19 2012 01:46 PM

These days, I would think that "week-end" is a reference to Downton Abbey and the Dowager Countess' question, "What is a week [Pause} end?"

Sep. 19 2012 01:42 PM
Laura from Brooklyn, NY

How about the usage of the word "couple" for mentioning two instead of 'a few'... Like when someone mentions that they'll finish their work in a "couple" of hours... does this mean they'll finish in 2 hours-- or a few hours?

Sep. 19 2012 01:42 PM
Ann Plogsterth from Upper West Side

Re hoi polloi:
Does the El Nino affect the Al Qaeda as much as it does the hoi polloi?

Sep. 19 2012 01:42 PM
Caroline from Brooklyn

Why is "I" capitalized in English (unlike French)? And why isn't "me" capitalized as well?

Sep. 19 2012 01:41 PM
shakiem from NJ

How about the origins of the expression "Dressed to the nines"?

Sep. 19 2012 01:40 PM
The Truth from Becky

Caller - It just sounds like he wants you to have good weekend...misplaced hyphen aside! Geez.

Sep. 19 2012 01:39 PM
Kate from Manhattan

I'm sorry she's a lovely lady but that was the most uninteresting, least informative story about the whole nine yards.

Sep. 19 2012 01:36 PM
Kenzie from mill river MA


We moved to rural Western Mass from Brooklyn, and our neighbor who has lived here for generations uses the term door yard for the area in front of her house. Is that an expression unique to a geographic area? Or is it generational?

Sep. 19 2012 01:36 PM
Tim from NYC

I've noticed that in recent years, "again" peppers radio and TV discussions. One would assume "again" would reference something just said, but more often than not the speaker seems to be using "again" as a pause or for emphasis. In moderation, it's acceptable, but again, why use it so much? Again, narwhals are cute.

Sep. 19 2012 01:34 PM
Ruth from Manhattan

Does a word whose meaning changes in popular useage ever get back to its original meaning?

Will we ever get "gay" back?
I miss it.

Sep. 19 2012 01:32 PM
Fiona from Broxn

I was recently placing an order in a restaurant and told the waiter we were ready to order "the whole ball of wax." I've used this phrase for as long as I can remember, but this 20-something fellow was totally taken aback...had never heard. He was intrigued, but I wasn't able to explain the phrase's origin. Are you able to enlighten us both?

Sep. 19 2012 01:28 PM

Why do writers of supposedly correct English, like the New York Times, not use adverbs properly, by which I mean the way I was taught in the Chapel Hill schools a thousand years ago? A sentence often begins with, "Most important, she said, this practice is annoying", rather than "Most importantly, she said this practice is annoying."

And a suggestion: I and Gail Collins think it would be MUCH easier for children to grasp grammar by learning how to diagram sentences. Especially for those who think visually, it's extremely helpful. Try, for example, diagramming "The Star Spangled Banner".

Sep. 19 2012 12:30 PM
Cindy from West Caldwell, NJ

I have a question about the world "well" as used to express surprise, or reproof or when used to introduce a sentence, resume a conversation, etc.. How did those usages of the word come about?

Sep. 19 2012 11:10 AM

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