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What is origin of the phrase 'dressed to the nines'?


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November 09, 2010 8:24PM

Although the general consensus to the origin of "Dressed to the Nines" is unknown; consider the meaning to be simply a reference of scale. " On a scale of one to ten; you are dressed to the nines" Since perfection can never be attained, nine would be the absolute best. The plural version on nine "Nines" is nothing more than people trying to make more of the number nine and fractionalizing it for further impact. With this definition in mind, every use of the term would make sense.

The phrases 'to the nines', or 'to the nine', were used to indicate perfection - the highest standards. That was in use in the 18th century, as here from William Hamilton's Epistle to Ramsay, 1719:

How to the nines they did content me.

In fact, the earliest reference of "to the nine" may not have been "to the nine" at all. A phrase similar to "to the nine" appears in a translation of Voyages de Jehan de Mandeville chevalier, which appeared anonymously in France circa 1357 and is attributed to Sir John Mandeville. In the English translation of this work is found the line:

Sir king! ye shall have war without peace, and always to the nine degree, ye shall be in subjection of your enemies, and ye shall be needy of all goods.

The original work was written in Anglo-Norman French and is much translated. Whether the 'to the nine' is a literal translation from the original or whether it was added by translators later, and possibly as late as 1900, isn't clear. It doesn't seem likely that the phrase existed in English as early as the 14th century, not to appear again in print until the 18th century.

However, it should be noted that the French word for the number nine is neuf, but neuf is also the French word meaning "new" in the sense of being brand new. It is therefore possible that when translating the passage above, the correct literary translation might have been:

Sir king! ye shall have war without peace, and always to the newest degree, ye shall be in subjection of your enemies, and ye shall be needy of all goods.

In this case "to the newest degree" would refer to facing an enemy with the latest, never before seen weapons and strategies for war. Therefore, it could have been a simple translation error that led to the expression "to the nine."

'To the nines' has now gone out of use and only persists in the more specific 'dressed to the nines' (or sometimes 'dressed up to the nines').

Dressed to the nines, or dressed up to the nines are merely a version of the phrase that is applied to clothing. That is first cited in John C. Hotten's A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, 1859 as:

DRESSED UP TO THE NINES', in a showy 'recherché' manner.

Many theories abound as to what prompted the phrase to be used in reference to dress. The fact that the prior phrase to the nines had been in existence for at least 150 years before we see dressed to the nines makes it obvious that the derivation of the variant version of the phrase need have had no connection with the number nine.

Despite this, various attempts have been made to guess at the origin. One has it that tailors used nine yards of material to make a suit (or according to some authors a shirt). The more material you had the more status, although nine yards seems generous even for a fop.

Another commonly repeated explanation comes from the reportedly smart uniforms of the The Wiltshire Regiment (Duke of Edinburgh's) 99th Foot, which was raised in 1824.

The problem with these explanations is that they come with zero hard evidence to support them, apart from a reference to the number nine (or even 99, which seems to be stretching the cloth rather thinly). The regiment was raised in the early 19th century, which is the right sort of date for the phrase to begin to be used in the middle of that century. It is at least plausible that the to the nines phrase was matched with the 99 of the regiment's name to and reputation to coin dressed to the nines.

As we have seen ad nauseam with similar attempts to explain "the whole nine yards," there are many things that come in groups of nine. Almost anything associated with the number has been at some point put forward as the origin of this phrase. The fact is, we aren't sure.

While no one knows the origin of 'to the nines' it is worth noting that nine has been used as a superlative in other contexts. Classical mythology gave us the nine Muses of arts and learning. The Nine Worthies were drawn from the mythology, history and the Bible. This distinguished group was Joshua, David, Judas Maccabæus, Hector, Alexander, Julius Cæsar, Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon.

We also have the nine days' wonder. Also known as a 'ninety-day wonder' for quickened passage of rank-rising military officers in times of war.

All of the above would have been well-known when this phrase was coined. A more recent link between nine and excellence is 'cloud nine'. A further reference and possibly the origin is found in Naval uniforms. Uniforms are always referred to by numbers. The number 9 uniform or "Number Nines" has changed in definition over time and in some cases has been described as canvas like material as stiff as boards, and at others as "9's: White front and white shorts, worn with white top cap. Equivalent of 3's in whites ".

A further description is [No 9 : White Dress, single breasted fully buttoned white tunic, white top cap, white shoes, medals] The U.S Navy does not use this system.