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I was in a computer programming training. A code executed an output number 7 and the trainer asked ( assuming joking) "Why is 7 the most feared number?" and someone said "Because 7,8,9 ... aho ho ho.."

was the expression very native or idiomatic? what does this mean?

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    Because seven was a six offender :P
    – jla
    Nov 6, 2019 at 4:30

3 Answers 3

62

Heh, because "Seven Ate Nine (7, '8,' 9)."

Ate = Eight.

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    I've heard a variation on this. "Why did 4 run away from 5? Because five sic'ed seven" which plays on the British slang phrase "sic" meaning "to attack".
    – Bob Tway
    Jan 19, 2017 at 15:36
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    @MattThrower, you mean like this, yes? Jan 20, 2017 at 11:13
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    @TeacherKSHuang Yes, that's right. I had no idea it had made it into an official dictionary: had presumed it slang.
    – Bob Tway
    Jan 20, 2017 at 11:38
125

It's a children's joke, nothing more. It's certainly not something one would encounter in everyday conversation.

The number pattern 7, 8, 9 sounds identical to seven ate nine in spoken form. A similar joke is depicted here:

[Cartoon of number six running away from the number seven who is biting number nine.1

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    Fun fact: The Turkish word for 7 ("yedi") is the same as the Turkish word for "ate". And verbs come after objects in Turkish, so you can tell this joke in Turkish as "Why was 4 afraid of 5? Because 5 6 7!"
    – Dan Staley
    Jan 17, 2017 at 22:21
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    My daughers used to say it in Spanish (where, of course, the joke makes no sense at all). Jan 18, 2017 at 3:12
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    This image is quite disturbing
    – user541686
    Jan 18, 2017 at 7:08
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    Even though I have known the joke since I was a child, the graphic made me (actually) laugh out loud. +1 for that alone!
    – yshavit
    Jan 18, 2017 at 7:27
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    @DanStaley Of course, this will lose the added "extra" that 6 and 9 look so similar, giving 6 the more reason to worry. Jan 18, 2017 at 9:54
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To add to Mike's excellent answer, the first time I was introduced to this joke was in a lesson about homophones. As as child this silly joke was a perfect example, and much easier to understand then something like "Did the two of you go to the park too?"

Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled and mean different things. For example ate (past tense for eat) and eight (the number).

In the case of eight and ate, even children can tell when to use them. But with too, to, and two, many adults can't even tell when they are being properly used.

Some really common English homophones are:

  • two, too, to
  • they're, there, their
  • eight, ate
  • then, than
  • buy,by
  • are, our

As a child, many of them are too confusing to easily tackle, but ate and eight, are simple. Especially if you write 8 instead of ate. And so this little, simplistic joke was used to demonstrate homophones, and how getting them wrong could change the meaning of the sentence.

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    and plenty of native English-speaking adults still don't know the difference between their, there and they're :P Jan 19, 2017 at 3:26
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    I don't think then & than or are & our are homophones. The pronunciation is different. Maybe near misses such as tense, tents or caret, carrot.
    – Felix Eve
    Jan 19, 2017 at 5:59
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    @FelixEve: One dialect's near misses are likely to be another's homophones. Like you, I distinguish then and than, are and our, but I know other dialects don't (certainly American English tends to merge are and our). But then, I would say I don't distinguish caret and carrot. (Perth, by the way... your profile says Melbourne?) Jan 19, 2017 at 8:15
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    I used to teach English as a foreign language. In the more advanced classes, where homophones (and naturally, the topic of puns) came up, I always introduced the lesson with a classic pun: Why was the little Egyptian boy confused? Because his daddy was a mummy.
    – flith
    Jan 19, 2017 at 13:25
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    native English person: then/than are never confused. However prince/prints and mints/mince are homophones, but it takes awhile to accept this as true as you start trying to over pronounce the T to make them sound different Jan 20, 2017 at 12:02

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