Today has been the ninth day of the ninth month. Three squared squared. If it weren’t for the generally inopportune timing (beginning of academic year, just after Labour Day, weather rather variable), I’d say it’s a good day to have a formal dress event. You know, so you could dress up to the nines.
Why to the nines, now? Where, in fact, are the nines?
Some people (notably Walter Skeat, first editor of the Oxford Etymological Dictionary, as Michael Quinion tells us) have suggested that it comes from Middle English to then eyen – at that time eyen was a normal plural for eyes. So if you can be armed to the teeth, you can be dressed to the eyes. The problem is just three things: first, there are no known printed usages of the phrase to the nines before the 1700s (several centuries too late); second, people who are dressed to the nines often have a hat, which is above the eyes; third, the first known usages don’t refer to dressing.
The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1719: “How to the nines they did content me.” Two more early usages are from Robert Burns in the 1790s: “’Twad please me to the Nine”; “Thou paints auld nature to the nines.” In fact, we don’t see the phrase dressed to the nines in print as such until 1837, and even a century later to the nines (or sometimes to the nine) is seen with other things to mean ‘the utmost degree’.
Which is to say, the whole nine yards. Which used to be the whole six yards, but then, you know, inflation. Well, nine is more ultimate than six, isn’t it? So to a lesser degree is seven, as in seventh heaven, but that rhymes, so there’s no reason to go to ninth heaven. (Meanwhile, the third degree is a reference to a specific Masonic examination, so it has never advanced. Well, not never – you can find Google hits for the ninth degree.)
That’s actually as much as we know for sure about the origin of to the nines: it uses the highest single-digit number as an expressive. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it sits high forward with the /n/ sounds and has that vowel closing on high front, as though the tongue is dancing eagerly on its tip. Perhaps it really is intended to be penultimate. Somehow to the tens doesn’t quite sound as fine, does it?
I like dressing up. It’s true that the quality of your dress has no relation to the quality of your personality, but why not please the eyes? Indeed, if you what’s inside the package is not so great, it’s at least something if the outside is pleasing. Trooper may have scorned the three dressed up as a nine, but I am more inclined towards the Split Enz view, from “Ships” (which somehow no one has posted on YouTube):
Some people pop a pill, when they feel exposed
Long as I’m dressed to kill
I’ll make sure no-one knows
Disguised in fancy-dress
Deep down, messed up
Hit town dressed up
To the nines, to the nines, to the nines, my disguise
It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s better than nothing, no?
The be-all and end-all? In numerology, 9 is sometimes thought of as the number of ending. After it, the cycle starts again at 1. But really, that makes it the number of being all and preparing to begin yet again – to end the ending. And 9 is particularly fascinating precisely because it is 1 less than 10, and we write numbers in columns of multiples of 10. Add 9 to anything and the digits still add up to the same thing: 23+9=32 (2+3=3+2); 76+9=85 (7+6=8+5).
This is because you add ten and subtract one, so you reduce the ones column by one as you advance the tens column by one, and the total stays the same. Every multiple of 9 has digits that add up to 9 or (for larger numbers) a multiple of 9, for the same reason: every time you increase one digit by 1, you decrease another by 1… and the basis of all that is adding on 9, so it stays at 9.
This also means that if you multiply anything by 9, the digits will always add up to 9 or a multiple of 9: 3×9=27 (2+7=9); 7×9=63 (6+3=9); 64×9=576 (5+7+6=18… and 1+8=9). As the nine gives, it takes away.
So nine is agreeable; you can add it anywhere and it fits in. But when things multiply, it prevails. So too when you are dressed to the nines: You are ready to glide in anywhere, but if matters take a turn, you are suited to prevail. But always with grace, of course, and pleasingly to then eyen.