Speaking it in the family
Familects – home dialects in which words are given private meanings – reveal that everyone has a creative and playful linguistic stories
Hearing a couple I know ask each other to pass the “splinkers” – their word for sweeteners – reminded me of the English Project’s collection of family slang, Kitchen Table Lingo, the blurb of which asks: “Does it sometimes seem like your family speaks its own language? Whether it’s a slip of the tongue that becomes a permanent part of the family vernacular or a word invented when all others fail, Kitchen Table Lingo is part of what makes our language so rich and creative. After all, what other language has 57 words for the TV remote control?”
David Crystal, who wrote the book’s afterword, expanded on what he described as these dialects of the home, or familects, in his blog: “The book has collected a fascinating group of the private and personal word-creations that are found in every household and in every social group, but which never get into the dictionary … Everyone has been a word-coiner at some time or other – if not around the kitchen table, then in the garden, bedroom, office, or pub. The words in this book are the tip of an unexplored linguistic iceberg.”
If, as is often suggested, the use of jargon confirms its speakers’ insider status, I suspect family words serve a similar function. Unlike jargon, however, family words are usually playful, creating both a sense of belonging and somewhere to let your hair down. Although that doesn’t mean serious territorial issues aren’t at stake. A friend reported how his girlfriend’s use of his best friend’s nickname for him, in front of the friend, was met with a chilly silence broken only by the rustle of passing tumbleweed.
The BBC’s Today programme, which asked whether any of its listeners’ examples of kitchen table lingo should enter the English lexicon, in some ways missed the point. Family words are closer to shibboleths than they are to the witty neologisms in books such as Rich Hall’s Sniglets or Douglas Adams’s and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff, however funny these may be. (And some of their suggestions, such as: “doork, a person who pushes on a door marked ‘pull’,” or “Shoeburyness, the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat that is still warm from somebody else’s bottom,” are very funny indeed.)
Although family words are often funny, they’re also shorthand for moments from a shared past and as such carry an emotional resonance. One friend wrote: “Our family word for a No 2 was ‘a packet’. It gave me a real sense of belonging when I heard it used by my cousin’s grown-up daughter. I’d only met her a few times but I reckon if you and your distant relatives share the word for ‘poo’ it means something! I’ve been meaning to ask my mum if she learned it from her mum. The answer can only be yes.”
In another friend’s house “Geoffrey’s” means it’s time to get ready for dinner. It’s a long story that I won’t recount, but it’s known to most branches of his wife’s family and helps keep alive the memory of an uncle who’s no longer with them. Indeed, relationships often involve learning each other’s family shorthand and creating a new, joint one. I still remember the jolt I felt, after a long relationship ended, when I went to use one of “our” words to someone new but realised it had been emptied of meaning.
In a process known as relexicalisation, kitchen table lingo generally uses the same grammar as English but a different vocabulary, the creation of which falls into clear categories. Children’s coinings are one of the most popular – a friend’s family still use “foo foos” (her brother’s word for shoes) and everyone in my family understands “bontoo” (my brother’s word for broken) or “bubs” (sorry, we’re back to poo again). Luckily this only exists in the plural, which prevents any confusion with my partner’s dad’s use of “bub” as in “All right, bub?”
Other categories include malapropisms or mispronunciations (“desecrated coconut”, “Neolopitan ice-cream”) or particularly boring objects, which brings us back to those 57 words for the remote control (“hoofa doofa”, “doojie” or “pogger” are just three). Then there are things that are difficult to define or lack a word. I can’t imagine how I managed before I adopted a friend’s “poggle” (a verb or a noun) for any remnants of lunch that remain stuck to your jumper.
When I asked friends for examples for this post, I was impressed by how many they came up with and loved hearing the stories behind them. If, for David Crystal, familects confirm his belief that everyone has a linguistic story to tell, then they also illustrate how playful, creative and emotional that linguistic story, and our relationship with language, can be.