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Nine days’ wonder

Q From Leslie Tomlinson: Tell me about nine days’ wonder for something whose popularity is short-lived? I’ve always thought that it’s related to Lady Jane Grey, queen for 9 days in 1553. Is that likely, since most people don’t even remember that she existed?

A It’s a nice idea, but the expression doesn’t date from the sad and all-too-brief reign of Lady Jane Grey, since in essence it’s about two centuries older.

It’s odd that the number nine should be so often associated with extremes — we have dressed to the nines, cloud nine and the whole nine yards. The same number turns up in lots of places: the nine Muses, the nine orders of angels, the Nine Worthies, the nine lives of a cat (and a cat o’nine tails), the nine tailors of bell-ringing fame, and so on. There are also the proverbs: “possession is nine points of the law”, “a stitch in time saves nine” and the old gardening saw that “parsley seed goes nine times to the devil” before it germinates.

The most common suggestion is that the expression derives from the Roman Catholic novena, a form of worship that consists of special prayers or services on nine successive days. But there are so many other expressions that include the same number that the source of the phrase may lie elsewhere.

Whatever the thought behind it, as far back as the early fourteenth century scoffers were saying that nine days, or nine nights, was the period of time that some novelty was likely to attract attention before our minds turned to something else. It later developed into our modern idiomatic form and had certainly become fixed like that by the time it was used in a play by Philip Massinger, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, of 1633.

There is an earlier example. For a bet, William Kemp (or Kempe), a famous clown of the Elizabethan stage, Morris-danced 130 miles (200 km) from London to Norwich over nine days during February and March 1600. He published his account of it later that year under the title Kemp’s Nine Daies Wonder. His play on words suggests that the idiom was already known in that form.

There has been nothing short-lived about nine days’ wonder.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Aug. 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 21 August 2010.