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February 25, 2001 - Slangman: Listener Questions - 2002-02-01

MUSIC "Get Off of My Cloud"/Rolling Stones (lyrics) "Hey! You! Get off of my cloud/ Don't hang around, baby, two's a crowd."

RS: Two's a crowd on a cloud? I'm Rosanne Skirble with Avi Arditti and this week on Wordmaster we answer some mail -- starting with a question from a listener in Nanjing, China, who is curious about one cloud in particular.

AA: "How come 'on cloud nine' means happy?" Deming Liu asks us by e-mail. We wondered about that, too, and we asked Slangman David Burke in Los Angeles to help us out. TAPE CUT ONE: DAVID BURKE

"Here's what I discovered to be on cloud nine. I discovered that, depending on what religion or spiritual beliefs you have there are nine levels of consciousness. And the ninth level is nirvana, the highest level. This is what I read in one of my resources. So, if you are on cloud three or seven, well, they are not good enough. But cloud nine is the highest level. You can't get much better than that. It's euphoria. It's paradise. It's heaven.

RS: And it's just one common explanation for why cloud nine like a lot of old sayings, the origin appears to be a bit up in the air. OK, if "cloud nine" is heavenly, then just what do you look like if you are "dressed to the nines"?

AA: Ajayi Olujide of Kwara State, Nigeria, knows what that means to be "dressed to the nines" is to be dressed in your fanciest clothing -- the question is: why? Again the explanations vary, ranging from numerology (some people equate nine with perfection) to the idea that what you really dress up to is the "eines," the old English word for eyes. And it doesn't stop there.


SKIRBLE: "What about the expression, another nine expression, 'the whole nine yards'?"

DAVID BURKE: "I would imagine that one comes from (American) football. Wouldn't you think so?"

AA: No, says our producer Kevin Raiman, who renovates homes in his spare time. The "whole nine yards" is a term he hears around construction sites.

RS: He says the expression refers to the capacity of cement mixers.


KEVIN RAIMAN: "So somebody would say, 'That's the whole nine yards.'" SKIRBLE: "Where did you learn that?"

DAVID BURKE: "I was going to say, he's the only person in the United States that knows that."

KEVIN RAIMAN: "No, every construction person born before 1950 knows it because there were some situations where the construction companies were trying to skim some (cement) off the top (in other words, cheat). (They) wouldn't put a whole nine yards of concrete in the truck, and they would charge you for the whole nine yards. So people got wise to that, and said, 'I want the whole nine yards."

AA/RS/BURKE: "AH! Very good, that's great."

AA: "Next question, from Cameroon. Mohamadou Ousmanou would like to know the meaning of 'gotcha!' G-O-T-C-H-A"

DAVID BURKE: "What is really interesting to me is that 'gotcha' is actually a reduction of 'got' and 'you.' In common, everyday spoken American English if the letter 'y' is preceded by a 't' we often pronounce it like a 'cha' sound. 'I will let you have it,' becomes 'I will 'letcha' have it.' So, 'I got you' is 'I 'gotcha'.' Now some reductions are so common they are actually seen in dictionaries and in books in the reduced form. So, let's take a look at this. 'Gotcha' means a few different things. For example it means that 'I succeeded in tricking you.' Let's say I say to you something like, 'Isn't that your car rolling down the hill?' And you say, 'What?' and I say, 'Gotcha!' It just means I tricked you didn't I!"

SKIRBLE: "It's a joke!"

DAVID BURKE: "(Yes,) it's just a joke!" It also means, 'I have you.' Like to a little child you (might) sneak up behind him and say, 'I gotcha.'" It means I have you. I have a hold of you. It also means I understand . . . 'I gotcha.' That's a common thing we hear. It simply means, 'I got or I have received and understand what you're saying,' 'I gotcha.'"

RS: And there's a new term when politicians accuse each other or journalists of doing something unfair in order to harm a reputation. It's called "political gotcha."


ARDITTI: "I remember when I started seeing that word and thought, why isn't there a 'y' in there (as in) 'gotchya' like (got) chya? But this is the spelling you see everywhere. G-O-T-C-H-A. Now teachers, though, if they see it in an essay may not like it. They may think it's slang or a reduced form."

DAVID BURKE: "Yes, absolutely! That's why you need to know that (also) in spoken (or written) language there is a time and a place for everything. There is a casual language. So if you are writing to a friend and want to say, 'gotcha,' that's fine. But, if you are writing it in an essay, you don't want to use it. The same thing (would apply) if you were in an interview, a professional situation. You would want to make sure that you are using very correct English and not a lot of slang. But if you don't use a lot of slang when you are talking to a friend you are going to sound too formal."

RS: Slangman David Burke comes to us from VOA's Los Angeles studio. Slangman says if you want to learn more about how Americans REALLY speak you should check out his books on slang and idioms at

AA: You can also address your questions to us at or to VOA Wordmaster, Washington, DC 20237 USA. Got that? With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.