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There is a Blues Standard "Nine Below Zero" and I wonder what the phrase means. The chorus is

Nine Below Zero, she put me down for another

And it would also be super interesting where this phrase comes from!

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3  
At first glance, that's just COLD, man. –  Wayfaring Stranger Apr 26 '13 at 13:31
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Colder than cold-blooded, man. That's nine below zero on the Fahrenheit scale. –  KitFox Apr 26 '13 at 13:33
    
@KitFox - yes, that nails it. What a phrase. Thank you very much! –  erch Apr 26 '13 at 14:17
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1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

As multiple comments mentioned, this is making a play on words with the word "cold". In English if you use the phrase "X below zero", it is understood that you are talking about the temperature. (To speak of temperatures warmer than 0, you instead phrase it as "X degrees". So >0 you say "degrees", <0 you say "below zero").

In the USA (home of the blues), the Farenheit scale is used. The freezing point of water is at 32 degrees. So any time you actually go into negative numbers on the F scale, it is really really cold. (If you are more familar with Celcius, -9F would be about -23C) Note that the song's author, Sonny Boy Williamson, was from Mississippi, where it rarely drops below freezing (32F), so this would be a temperature colder than anything he likely personally ever experienced. In short, the number is meant to sound extreme.

One of the other meanings of "cold" is someone who is uncaring. So basically this song is saying that she isn't simply being uncaring, but really really uncaring.

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Why nine specifically? Could be 8, 10, even 459.67 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_zero) –  Kris Apr 26 '13 at 14:07
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Ah yes, this makes a lot of sense. I also found she put me down, six feet under the ground which was quite obvious. But nine feet under the ground didn't make much sense. To be sure one doesn't come back, maybe? Thank you very much! –  erch Apr 26 '13 at 14:16
    
@Kris I suspect he just liked the sound of the word "nine" there. Other nearby numbers were probably just as likely candidates, but not having access to wikipedia in the Mississipi delta in the 1930's I suspect he was unlikely to have come up with 459.67. :-) –  T.E.D. Apr 26 '13 at 14:20
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@Kris The choice of specific numbers in specific contexts is actually a pretty huge and interesting subject, and it's kind of intriguing what guides those choices. For the most part, I usually find myself answering the way T.E.D. answered, something like, "That's just what felt right." Here's a terrific example that pops to mind: In the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, at one point John Candy is feeling incredibly cold, and he asks what the temperature is, saying, "What is it, like ONE?" Now, THAT's funny! If he had said "zero," it wouldn't have been funny; too obvious, right? –  John M. Landsberg Apr 26 '13 at 14:37
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