If you’ve ever passed the cockpit while boarding a flight and tried to pick up bits from your pilots’ conversation, you probably didn’t glean much from them. From terms like “niner” to “Zulu,” pilot-speak can sound like its own language.

While most of the phrases flight crew use were borne out of a need for clear and succinct communication over an occasionally fuzzy radio transmission, according to aviation experts, there are also more colorful phrases that pilots say were conceived of in the sky and shared widely among staffers.

“A lot of the ways we say things to be meaningful to other pilots is kind of monkey-see, monkey-do,” says Ferdi Mack, senior manager at the Pilot Information Center, of picking up lingo on the job. “Part of your challenge is to get it and understand it.”

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