The Cantonese language seems to have a slang word for just about every behaviour under the sun. Anyone who has ever encountered individuals who seem not to make a whole load of sense in their speech will no doubt be familiar with gau2 m4 daap3 baat3 (九唔搭八), literally “nine not following eight.” Think of frustrating coworkers who refuse to get to the point in meetings, or self-centred friends who steer every conversation towards something about themselves – or US president Donald Trump’s infamous “covfefe” tweet.
This expression is frequently used to describe people who provide irrelevant responses to questions, or are not wholly concentrating in the conversation they are taking part in – which of course results in them making illogical remarks.
But where exactly does this expression come from? Let’s start with the obvious school of thought. The number eight is preceded by nine, and when the numbers are in a wrong order—when nine doesn’t follow eight—things don’t make sense.
There is likely more to it than that. Some say that “nine not following eight” is closely linked to the Cantonese expression ngau4 tau4 m4 daap3 maa5 zeoi2 (牛頭唔答馬咀), literally “ox head not answering horse mouth.” All of these have a similar meaning to “nine not following eight.” Others argue that the term is actually derived from—and is also a cleaner version of—a little-used Cantonese swear word, gau1 m4 daap3 cat1 (鳩唔搭柒), which references male genitals and also means things that don’t make sense.
One interesting theory regarding the origins of nine not following eight draws on complexities in the Cantonese language as well as the similarities between the written Chinese characters for “eight” (八) and “nine” (九).
Firstly, daap3 (搭) itself has multiple meanings in Cantonese: it could either mean to follow or to connect. Meanwhile, the daap3 pronunciation is shared among the characters “follow/connect” (搭) and “answer” (答) – the two are homophones. A separate saying, chi5 daap3 fei1 daap3 (似答非答), which literally means “like answering but not really answering,” also features the daap3 tone.
Then there is how the characters for eight and nine are written. Nine is differentiated from eight by a single horizontal line that connects two downward strokes.
Here is where the “follow/connect” and “answer” homophones come into play. When it is not clear whether someone has drawn a horizontal line between the two strokes in “eight” to make it “nine” on a piece of paper, it begins to look chi5 daap3 fei1 daap3 – “like connecting but not really connecting.” Since that sounds exactly the same as “like answering a question but not really answering a question,” it is said that people used these homophone-based puns as the basis for a whole new expression, “nine not following eight,” to describe those who just can’t give a straight answer – or say something sensible.
photo courtesy Naoko Hatanao @nao8448