(oh hey look!  an audio version!  give it a whirl!)

– Or: When the first eight aren’t dressed enough…

In an effluxion of time-passing conversation last week, the subject of getting all dressed up for things came up.  I cannot for the life of me remember the context but at some point the words “dressed to the nines” were uttered and it got me to thinking a bunch.  Which is dangerous.  But anyway! “What on earth is the origin of this fairly common phrase?”

Is it a multiplier of some form?  Is it actually just German and a reminder that getting all dressed up takes a ton of work?  Because I have an allergy to that level of work.  There is a rap artist by the name of Nines from what I recall, but given that the phrase predates him a bit I don’t think getting dressed to him is quite it either.

So!  Off to the Google I went to start diving into the subject.  What follows is a listing of findings that are based on factual and speculative findings related to printed material and other bizarre oddities.

Let’s go down this rabbit hole together!  Grab my hand, close your eyes, count to seven, then open your eyes because jumping with eyes closed is scary, and OFF WE GO!

The possibility of linguistic twisty-turny in order to get dressed to the nines in the first place

The notion of being dressed to the nines, as stated above, is an implication of wearing lots of super fancy clothes, baubles, hair all done up (that’s easy for me), use of actual underodor dearmament, all that type of stuff and things.  One of the many possible theories that exist to explain where it comes from is a tweaking of a very ye olde medieval phrase of “to thine eynes” or “to the eyes.”  The idea behind it being that getting all dressed up in the finest of finery would be considered oh so pleasing to the eyes.

One of the drawbacks to this theory is that there isn’t enough corroborating evidence to back it up.  It has the ring of plausibility to it given the things we’ve done to the English language over the years – including some of the crimes against language that take place in this here blog right here mmhmm – and the lack of written material to support it makes it complicated.

So we’ll chalk this one up to a “possible maybe.”

Maybe.  Possibly.

Documented instances of “Dressed To The Nines” without the Dressed part

So let’s go back in time for a bit here.  All the way back to a printing in 1835 of The Progressive Dictionary of the English Language as worked by Samuel Fallows. Where it states, and I quote: “To the nines, to perfection; generally applied to dress, and sometimes implying excess in dressing… he or she was dressed up to the nines.”.

This goes back more than a couple moons.


We can go even further than that if we really want.  And we do really want.  And by We I mean Me.  Because that’s where my head is today.

The 1719 Epistle to Ramsay by Scottish poet William Hamilton intones: “The bonny Lines therein thou sent me, How to the nines they did content me.”  To the nines right, but not in reference to clothing and apparel.  Very interesting.

From that same year!  Robert Burns pens the following: “Thou paints auld nature to the nines, In thy sweet Caledonian lines.”  There’s that nines business again.  Both of those writings are very specifically “to the nines” which seems to imply that maybe “to the nines” is of common use and it is not necessarily as tied to being “dressed” to them as we know it today.

So deeper we go into that rabbit hole!

(interesting side note: Robert Burns was also responsible for the song that we know as “Auld Lang Syne,” a song that the Teen Titans claim that nobody knows the words to.  Blew my youngest child’s mind when I knew the words.  Robert Burns is a big fan of using the word “auld” it seems.)

What are The Nines, what happened to the other eight, and where was I

I was today years old when I first learned of the Nine Muses of Arts and Learning. Their names are Erato, Calliope, Melpomene, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Urania, and Thalia, and Clio. (note to self, gotta remember to give her a call). Going way far back to references of these muses brings into play some very interesting stuff.

As scripted down here for reference:

The learned tribe whose works the World do bless,
Finish those works in some recess;
Both the Philosopher and Divine,
And Poets most who still make their address
In private to the Nine.

The above was written in 1687 and found in The Poetick Miscellenies of Mr. John Rawlett as one of those references.  So when we look at it from that perspective, there is something already there about To The Nine.

Why’d they get pluralized?  Great question!  Why is “door hinge” the only thing that rhymes with orange?  I dunno!  Why is it that sometimes you realize that the pie you’re looking at on Instacart isn’t a pie at all but it’s actually a sandwich?  WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME THESE THINGS?


There appears to be a link to need to offer up perfection into the eyes of those nine. The Niners. Except not in American Football.  Different niners.  Offering up a work to The Nine sure sounds like a daunting task and, thankfully, I never had to think about that thing when creating stuff.  My dorky Clubhouse resets would not likely stand the test of The Nine were they to descend from their lofty abode and render judgement on those things.

Also, they’re not real.  We’ve already figured that out by now, right?  I hope?  Maybe?

I gotta remember to call Clio.  Seriously. Maybe she can tell me.

Conclusions abound

I’m ….. not entirely sure we actually got where I wanted to go with this one!  We have explored references to being dressed to the nines, we have dug a little deeper to figure out who the nines were and why we’re doing anything in their general direction.  It’s entirely possible that this was just a language evolution that took place.  It had a nice ring to it and you could dance to it.  Which leaves us with the phrase that we have today.  The distinction of what the nines are seem to have evolved out of our nomenclature.  Kinda like the prehensile toe.  One was probably more useful than the other, though.

That’s all I have for this one!  Shorter than usual.  Much to your delight I’m sure.

Thanks for hanging out again for all the weird things I find fascinating.  See you next week!

-= george =-



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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