Words count for a lot in our house; me being the aspiring writer, Short-pants, a voracious reader, De-facto, an enthusiastic speaker (goes to Toastmasters) and Buddy-roo, the consummate chatterbox. Not to mention that in our household we speak two languages, so we have double the number of words to navigate. Words matter.
Hang around with us and you’ll occasionally hear one of the adults suggesting calmly (and not to each other), “use your words.” Pointing and grunting are frowned upon. Our children have been indoctrinated to speak in full sentences and even the magic words are pretty well embedded. Not that an occasional reminder isn’t necessary, but frequently enough to impress me, the girls make good use of please and thank you – and do so with real feeling.
Every household has its “words,” part of the family folklore that is generated by the cute or clever mistakes made by children as they learn about life and language. Often these words relate to scatological subject matter; a topic which I deliberately avoid in this blog because a) I find it unattractive, b) nobody cares about my children’s potty habits, and 3) it would be a nightmare if a Google search on my name produced something so distasteful and yet memorable. But it’s a subject we all talk about – at least privately – and it is often the cornerstone of a family vocabulary. My brother and sister and I made a blood pact never to divulge the words to another living person, a vow we all have kept. Even De-facto doesn’t know the words from my childhood, and never will.
Having said that, there is a word that De-facto and I introduced to our lil’ nuclear family that I will share – because my friends love it so much – the word we use for one’s “private parts.” It’s not that we have such a hang-up about the technical terms; we’ll get to them when the girls start posing probing questions about the birds and the bees. But honestly, I never wanted my 3-year old over-employing the word vagina in a loud voice at the supermarket, so we came up with a gender-neutral signifier instead: the business. Typical use at bath time: “Did you wash the business?” Another common usage: “If your business doesn’t hurt, why are you holding it?”
It’s a bit easier on the ear than the v-word or the p-word, and can be used discreetly in public, like a code. It only backfired on me once, when Buddy-roo, at the age of about 4, bounded into my office despite the closed-tight door, to announce something important. I shushed her in a panicked whisper: “Shhhh! Mama’s on a business call!”
“Business?!” she shrieked as De-facto apologetically pulled her out of the office and shut the door behind them. I could hear her laughing in the hall, “Mama’s making a call from her business? Ha!”
Yes, well it seemed like a good word when we first came up with it.
Some of these invented family words come into common use because of an adorable mispronunciation or mal-interpretation that turns out to be quite astute. Buddy-roo is the originator of some of our best terminology. She of course utters the typical breafquist, an oft-mispronounced word. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cute when every child says it, but it’s not that original. Part of Buddy-roo’s linguistic charm is her strange non-rhotic accent which amuses us to no end because even De-Facto, who hails from Boston, doesn’t share her aversion for the letter ‘R.’ But accent and odd pronunciation habits aside, Buddy-roo excels at inventing words. And they make more sense than you’d expect. A few examples:
Rainbrella: the round, collapsible device one uses as protection from the rain. This makes so much more sense to us than umbrella, which, um, has nothing to do with the element against which it’s designed to offer protection. (I guess it makes sense if you speak Latin, which we don’t.) She also suggested the word Sunbrella, similarly styled and found at the beach. No doubt Buddy-roo’s French has informed the invention of these two words, as parapluie and parasol are both used for the rain or the sun.
Unlistener. This is a person, initially a child in the first grade – but you can imagine this applying to any segment of the population – who, despite being within auditory range, prefers to remain in the state of “not having heard it.” An unlistener can be quite selective, but ultimately, this is someone that you can’t really count on to receive or re-transmit information of any importance. Common usage: “You can’t ask him anything, he’s the biggest unlistener in the class.”
Smashed potatoes. So much more descriptive than mashed ones, don’t you think?
Short-pants, on the other hand, takes very seriously the correct acquisition of new words for her vocabulary. Last week, she got the idea to sleep with her dictionaries, reasoning that the words might seep into her brain by osmosis, a word she then had to look up. It makes for an uncomfortable night’s rest, as she feels compelled to stack under her pillow three dictionaries – English, French and French/English – to accommodate her hunger for words. Hard to say if it’s working, but we must admire her commitment to learning.
Short-pants is a stickler for correctness, and this kicks in when she overhears me speaking French. My French is operable, but I don’t have the linguistic muscle that she’s acquired by starting it at such a young age. Since she feels compelled to correct my pronunciation and grammar, we’ve made a deal: I will receive her corrections enthusiastically, as long as she delivers them gently with the intention of helping rather than humiliating me. It’s a beautiful thing. She’ll wait until nobody is around and leaning toward me, in a conspiratorial tone, she’ll suggest something like, “Mama, you might want to say le instead of la with the word pain.”
Buddy-roo, I can already tell you, won’t treat me so kindly. Her corrections, when they start coming at me, will be marked with eye rolling and heavy sighs of disgust, which I will tolerate for only a short while before I tell her to mind her own business.