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March 19, 2000 - Slangman: Non-Words - 2002-02-06

INTRO: This week VOA's Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble try to make sense of what can sound like nonsense to the untrained ear.

MUSIC -- "De do do do, de da da da"/The Police

AA: Spoken English is made up not just of words but also sounds that are called interjections.

They probably are not in any dictionary -- but interjections can convey a lot of meaning.

RS: Uh-huh! When we stopped to think about it, we came up with plenty of examples. So did "Slangman" David Burke, the author of a series of books on American English. He points out a pair of common interjections for "yes" and "no."


"uh-huh and uh-uh."

RS: Can we hear that again?


"uh-huh and uh-uh."

AA: Did you get that? The problem for non-native English speakers -- even for native speakers - - is to distinguish between these two sounds:

"uh-huh" and "uh-uh."


"We have lots of words that say yes: `yes,' `yep,' but uh-huh is really popular, and it sounds musically like this: 'uh-HUH?' or 'uh- HUH!' Now if you stop the 'uh' and say 'uh- uh', that's `no.' So, it's a big difference, 'uh-huh' is `yes' and 'uh-uh' is no."

RS: David Burke suggests another common interjection that carries its own melody:


DAVID BURKE: "`Duh.' To me `duh' is a way to say, 'That's so obvious,' `Duh!' And, it was typically a teenager thing, but it fits so perfectly. There is no other word for it. You can not replace it with anything else except, `duh!'

AA: `So, it's like saying, `What are you an idiot?'"

DAVID BURKE: "Yeah, `What are you stupid?'"

RS: And, then we have other interjections that help describe what we feel.


DAVID BURKE: "What kind of sound do we make when you taste something that is really bad? RS: "Yuck!"

DAVID BURKE: "That's really popular. Kids say that. Adults say it. We say, `yuck,' or `ick.'"

AA: "Or blech!"

DAVID BURKE: "B-L-E-C-H! We see that in cartoons. Now those are things that taste bad. So, if it tastes bad it is `yucky,' or you say 'yuck,' 'ick,' `blech.' But what if it smells bad, what would you say?"

AA: "Pew! [sounds like P-U]"

DAVID BURKE: "Right! `Pew.' That's what we'd used for a smell, and the other ones, `yuck' and `ick' and `blech,' we'd use for a taste."

RS: "How about a good taste? If something smells good, what would you say?"

DAVID BURKE: "Mmmm..."

RS: "Exactly! That's a wonderful one because we use that for anything that gives pleasure. If it smells good, if it tastes good."

AA: "Let's bring up `yada yada yada, which was a term that was in the popular vocabulary, then got further exposure on the television show `Seinfeld.' It's used a lot.

It's the cousin of `blab blah blah'. (Could you) explain `yada yada yada.'"

DAVID BURKE: "We can actually use it in two ways, one to make fun of someone: `yada yada yada.' And, the second way simply means 'et cetera' and 'so forth,' and it's not insulting. (Here's) a sentence: `Today I went to an amusement park. Then I went to the beach. Then I went shopping, yada yada, yada, I had a long day."

RS: "Now with the television show off the air, and `yada yada yada' in our general vocabulary, do you think that (the expression) is going to disappear too?"

DAVID BURKE: "Not a chance. I think that any slang term that is fun to say will stay here forever! So, we have to look at what's popular. It's popular to say, `yuck,' `zap,' `pow,' `umph' `blech' -- all that stuff.

"So, it's important that we know what (the interjections) mean and when is it appropriate to use those sounds and when is it not appropriate to use them. Like we said before with `yada yada yada,' there could be some times when that could be offensive to somebody because you are insinuating that that person is talking nonsense, and there are other times where it is absolutely the only word to use. 'Et ctcetera' is more formal. `Yada yada yada.' That's more casual and, again, popular.

"So these sounds are part of our language, and maybe for the first time create our own sound dictionary."

AA: In fact, "Slangman" David Burke says he plans to add a "sound dictionary" to his Web site, so you can look for that and also browse through his books at

RS: To reach us, address your letters to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA, or send us e-mail at

AA: Next, week we tackle another problem of American grammar with Grammar Lady Mary Bruder.

RS: Until then, we say "tah-tah!"

AA: Tah-tah! With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC - "De do do do, de da da da"/The Police (reprise)