The origin of a cliché is a bottomless pit on a dark and stormy night, but I was tickled by The New York Times’s recent addition to the trove of lore concerning the whole nine yards. This one is apparently the deepest of all secrets, the windingest of all labyrinths. Yards, after all, can refer to two-dimensional measure (yards of cloth); three-dimensional measure (yards of concrete); playing fields (baseball yards); a spar on a sailing mast; and degree of achievement (gaining yards in football). The origin of the phrase, thought to have been coined in 1970, has now been traced back to the 1910s—but surprise! It was only six yards then.
To follow the theory behind this discovery and the ways in which amateur etymologists are reconciling it with their nine-yard theories, I refer you to the Times article. Of most interest to me is the possibility of inflation. However “the whole six yards” originated, if we’ve increased the yardage over the years to nine, we’re following a logical pattern in our growth-oriented society. Consider other inflation-prone clichés:
- Cloud nine. According to several sources, the notion of this phrase’s originating in the U.S. Weather Bureau’s rating of clouds or from Buddhist stages of enlightenment is bogus, given that both those sets of classifications actually rise to 10. More probable is its source in cloud seven (possibly associated with seventh heaven), which was inflated in the mid-20th century to cloud nine.
- The $64,000 question. Began as the $64 question on a radio quiz show and underwent inflation. Now, of course, we’ve got the $64-million question, taxable at whatever rate Congress finally determines.
- That and a quarter. Used to be that and a nickel, meaning that whatever opinion the speaker was uttering was worthless; the added nickel (added, essentially, to nothing) would procure whatever the nickel alone would have—a bus ride, a cup of coffee, a phone call. What I now hear most often is That and a quarter’d get you a phone call, if there were any pay phones left—which doesn’t quite suit the purpose of the original expression but does speak to the frozen-in-time price of the pay-phone experience.
- Tempest in a teapot. Apparently Americans inflated this one, originally storm in a teacup in Britain, and possible billows in a ladle going back to Cicero. Next I expect we’ll have hurricane in a bathtub.
- Sheets to the wind. Depending on whom you ask, this has been either inflated or misinterpreted. Some sources use a sheets to the wind (or in the wind) scale of one to four, with the occasional hyperbolic six sheets, each “sheet” representing a nautical rope loose in the wind, so that loss of control increases each time the drunken person lets go a sheet. Three sheets to the wind thus implies falling-over tipsiness, and five sheets to the wind is inflated nonsense. Others argue that claiming someone is two or four sheets to the wind mistakes the origin; the sheets need simply to be balanced, so that four sheets to the wind or two sheets to the wind is a balanced approach, while three sheets to the wind will capsize you. Of course, then there are the windmill-origin people, but we won’t take them on this time.
- If I had a  for every , I’d be a rich woman. This is the only phrase for which I ran a Google Ngram. Oddly, If I had a nickel has outpaced If I had a dime over the past 50 years, but inflation is markedly present nonetheless: If I had a dollar, once present only in odd spikes of usage, now regularly outstrips If I had a penny about 10 to 1.
I expect the hyperbolizing of clichés to continue, so that—picking from the list of “words of 2012,” composed by Grant Barrett of the American Dialect Society, we’ll go from fiscal cliff to fiscal precipice, from binders full of women to crates full of babes. After all, the $250,000 middle-class cutoff became the $450,000 middle-class cutoff overnight. Who says inflation is flat?