The phrase to spin a yarn, and its variants, mean to tell a long, far-fetched story.
Many of the texts containing the early occurrences of this phrase that I have found indicate that to spin a yarn originated in nautical slang—perhaps, therefore, the phrase alludes to making ropes from lengths of yarn on board ship: the men would have told one another stories while performing this long and tedious task.
The following is from How all the Tackling and Rigging of a Ship is made fast one to another, with their names, and the reasons of their vse, in A Sea Grammar, With the Plaine Exposition of Smiths Accidence for young Sea-men, enlarged (London: Printed by Iohn Hauiland, 1627), by the soldier and colonial governor John Smith (bap. 1580, d. 1631):
Rope yarnes are the yarnes of any rope vntwisted […]. Spunyarne is nothing but rope yarne made small at the ends, and so spun one to another so long as you will with a winch.
Likewise, the following is from The Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor; or a Key to the Leading of Rigging, and to Practical Seamanship (New York: E. & G. W. Blunt, 1853), by Darcy Lever (1760?-1837), with additions by George W. Blunt (1802-1878):
is made as follows:—A piece of junk or old cable is untwisted, the yarns drawn out, knotted together, and rolled up in balls round the hand. Three or four of these balls are laid upon deck, and an end out of each being taken, they are coiled in fakes upon a grating, or other thing, (to keep the tar from the deck,) and upon every three or four fakes tar is rubbed by a brush. These are fastened by their ends to a kind of reel called a Spun-yarn Winch, Fig. 4, and a half-hitch is taken over one of the spokes, E. The man who spins the yarn, retires to a convenient distance, and then, with a brisk motion, (holding the yarns in his hands), he whirls the winch round against the sun. When it is spun sufficiently, he rubs it backwards and forwards, with a piece of old canvas, which he keeps in his hand, reels it on the winch, takes another half-hitch round the spoke E, and proceeds as before. When the reel is full, it is taken off and balled.
Fig. 4, from The Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor; or a Key to the Leading of Rigging, and to Practical Seamanship (New York: E. & G. W. Blunt, 1853):
It is generally said that the phrase to spin a yarn is first recorded in A Vocabulary of the Flash Language, a glossary appended to Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux (London: Printed by W. Clowes, 1819), by James Hardy Vaux (1782-1841?), an Englishman who was convicted and transported to Australia on three separate occasions—this is the relevant entry from his glossary:
YARN, yarning or spinning a yarn, is a favourite amusement among flash-people; signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other. This is most common and gratifying, among persons in confinement or exile, to enliven a dull hour, and probably excite a secret hope of one day enjoying a repetition of their former pleasnres [sic]. See BONED [cf. note]. A person expert at telling these stories, is said to spin a fine yarn. A man using a great deal of rhetoric, and exerting all his art to talk another person out of any thing he is intent upon, the latter will answer, Aye, Aye, you can spin a good yarn, but it won’t do; meaning, all your eloquence will not have the desired effect.
I have, however, found two earlier occurrences of the phrase to spin a yarn, and variants:
1-: In the following poem, published in the Leicester Journal. And Midland Counties General Advertiser (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Friday 16th August 1816—this poem was reprinted in La Belle Assemblée; being Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine (London, England) of April 1817:
THE POOR MAN’S DOGGREL THANKS TO LORD COCHRANE.
The table mount, full oft my Lord,
’Twill please some city folks;
And spin long yarns (you know the word)
For giving’s all a hoax.
But where was Waithman and Burdett,
Those precious twins of glory,
Who magnify the nation’s debt
In many a doleful story?
That some in office still should stay,
Your gentle nature shocks;
But, faith, my Lord, the game you’d play
Would not advance our stocks.
You tell us, as the only chance
To give us all employ,
To let rebellion wildly prance,
And sinecures destroy.
But, as in speculative plots,
We are not vastly clever,
We’d rather not turn Sans Culottes,
And shout Old Nick for ever.
Suppose you lost a mast at sea,
Would you unship the helm,
And set your random vessel free
To waves that must o’erwhelm?
No, no, my Lord, we’d rather bear
Some hardships and privation,
Than list to you, and madly dare
Disturb our Prince and Nation.
The Royal Dukes, with hearts intent
The poor man’s pray’r to bless,
Ne’er told us England’s means were spent
To remedy distress.
Your Lordship’s comfort, coldly drawn,
Can not console the poor;
Then, though our flocks be thinner grown,
’Gainst wolves we shut the door.
2-: In a letter that “a young Officer in the Mediterranean, a native of Richmond,” wrote from the Bay of Naples on 21st August 1816—letter published in the Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia, USA) of Saturday 9th November 1816:
We were conducted to the river Styx, and the Elysian Fields; the former, by eruptions, convulsions, &c. is now reduced to a small lake; the latter is now converted to a vine-yard, not half so decent a receptacle as fiddlers-green, allotted to sailors.—Thus have I, a second Æneas, visited both Hell and Elysium; and though I was not gratified with a dish of chat, no doubt experienced otherwise as much satisfaction—and will spin as long a yarn as he.
These are, in chronological order, some other early occurrences of phrase to spin a yarn, and variants, that I have found:
1-: From The National Gazette and Literary Register (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) of Monday 3rd February 1823:
Norfolk, Jan. 19.
The fleet.—“The town is all alive with the numerous officers of commodore Porter’s fleet. More are assembled here than were ever together on any other station. On all sides you hear the note of preparation and the roaring of cannon. The navy yard is in a complete “hubbub,” and every street and turning display epaulettes, swords, &c. Pleasure and business too are united. Balls and dancing parties are given when it is too late to work, where our anti-piratical heroes amuse the ladies with tales of “most disastrous chances, of moving accidents by flood and field, of hair breadth ’scapes, of anthropophagi,” and other wonders, to which like modern Desdemonas they “seriously incline.” They themselves call it “spinning long yarns.”—The fleet it is said will be ready in a fortnight.
2, 3 & 4-: From Greenwich Hospital, by ‘An Old Sailor’, published in The London Literary Gazette, and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. (London, England):
2-: Of Saturday 19th July 1823:
“I’ve lost one eye, and I’ve got a timber toe,”
Sung old Joe Jennings, as he swivelled round on his wooden pin, whilst bustling through the comical Jack-in-the-box gate at the east end of the Naval Asylum going into Greenwich Park—
“I’ve lost one eye, and I’ve got a timber toe.”
“And where did you leave your eye, Joe?”—“In the Gut of Gibraltar.”—“Well, Joe, you’ll never see double again, so what do you say to another glass? Come, let’s freshen the nip, my old boy, and spin us a tough yarn.”—“No, no, thank ye all the same—No, no, thank ye, I’d rather not; for whilst I am spinning the yarn you would be winding me up, and then I should go reeling it to my cabin, and catch the yellow fever.” *
* The pensioners, when in disgrace, are compelled to wear a party-coloured coat, in which yellow predominates.—Ed.
3-: Of Saturday 26th June 1824:
Why, as for the matter o’ that, Sir, what else have we got to do? Here we are, snug moored in Greenwich, riding out the gale of life till death brings our anchors home, and then our sarvice being worn through, and the cable stranded, we slip and run for the haven of eternal rest. Why, Sir, if it warn’t for our spinning a yarn now and then, we should spit and sputter at each other like a parcel of cats in a gutter; but by reviving the remembrance of old times when we steer’d at the same wheel, fought at the same gun, or belonged to the same watch, we likewise cherish those mutual feelings of regard which adversity cannot capsize, nor old age founder.
4-: Of Saturday 11th September 1824:
But I have been spinning you a long yarn, Mr. What’s-your-name, and all about nothing.
EARLY AUSTRALIAN-ENGLISH OCCURRENCES
1-: From Police Incidents, published in The Australian (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 20th May 1826:
Robert Bailes was charged with robbing a seaman whilst sitting together in a public-house. The house is somewhere about the Rocks, and there the son of Neptune had retired to a “blow out” of grog, with a whiff of “negur-head” or grass cut, as it might chance to fall out. There was another biped in the room, who had every appearance of being a literary character, for he had a ponderous tome under his arm, independent of other books, good, no doubt, in their own way; but this tome did contain treasures—treasures to a nautical man;—there were problems of plane and crooked sailing, right and oblique trigonometry, azimuths and amplitudes, and a number of other scientific et ceteras, with a huge heap of logarithms that would have puzzled the antiquated Magi to calculate. It was Hamilton Moore’s, or, as seamen usually term it, “Humbledon” Moore’s Epitome of Navigation. There could not have been found a book better calculated to fascinate the seaman, who soon hailed the bearer of it in friendly terms, and commenced “spinning a long yarn,” (as sailors have it) all about lines and sines, and attempts to prove that two parallel lines can never meet.
2-: From A Galley Story, published in The Australian (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 23rd December 1826:
“There’s not a chap in the barky—no, not a fellow afloat in the fleet, has felt more o’ the roughs and the smooths o’ the service nor I. I was prest—desarted, and desarvedly punished; and here I am, ‘happy-go-lucky,’ and as hearty as ever. Tisn’t often I spins you a yarn, but, just to set you to rights, I’ll give you a twist; so here’s heave with the winch.”
BONED, taken in custody, apprehended; Tell us how you was boned, signifies, tell us the story of your apprehension; a common request among fellow-prisoners in a jail, &c., which is readily complied with in general; and the various circumstances therein related afford present amusement, and also useful hints for regulating their future operations, so as to avoid the like misfortune.