Family words

For a long time now I’ve had an interest in what I call “family words”.

Family words are words that are particular to one family. Sometimes they’re cultural, sometimes they’re a mispronunciation or misemphasis on a normal word. Sometimes they’re made-up words.

Let me give examples from my own family. My sister Jane used to misemphasize “determined”, putting the accent on the first syllable and rhyming the end with “kind”, so instead of “de-TER-min-d”, it came out “DET-er-mine-d”. There was a short time, I recall, when my mother would use this word jokingly to us. That’s a mispronunciation/misemphasis family word.

Others came from my father, who grew up in Ireland. He’d say “Have some ensilage” when he passed the coleslaw. “Ensilage” (EN-sil-age) is a farm word – it means the chopped feed stored in a silo. When I was little, I didn’t know that, and I thought of it as being spelled “insulage”, and being something that helped keep you warm.

“Fudd” was another one. A fudd is what’s on the top of a toque; I didn’t realize for years that most people called it a pom-pom and didn’t understand what a fudd was. It’s an old Irish word for bunny tail, and, again, it came from my dad.

I would like to collect family words, but it’s very difficult. The difficulty stems from two sources. First, it’s often not clear, at least to the children in the family, that a family word is a family word. “Fudd” and “ensilage” were normal words, as far as I knew. I only found out that “fudd” wasn’t when I was in my teens, and “ensilage” I figured out for myself.

Second, family words are often not used outside the family, particularly if they are mispronunciations. Everyone in the family is aware of the “wrongness” of the word, and they don’t use it to non-members. After the first time, we all understood that Jane’s pronunciation was mistaken. It remained an inside joke.

I think many family words are incorporated into jokes or bywords. My husband and I use “Fibonacci” in this way. If I suspect him of telling me something that might not be strictly true, I’ll ask, “Are you fibbin’ at me?”, which is his cue to say, “No, I’m not Fibonacci” (roughly, “fibbin’ at ye”).

I don’t know who else even remembers the various family words that rose from mispronunciation among us children, or maybe even recalls the ones Dad introduced. I’m sure that none of my nieces or nephews knows the word Dad used for porridge, and the joke about how to spell it. (brochen – B-R-O-ech-ech-E-N) or the phrase “A moily’s lament for kale blades” (a polled cow’s longing for cabbage leaves).

Family words are a kind of subset of language, a micro-language; they bloom and die with the family, maybe even within a generation or two. I’ve written down the family words I remember, but I’m sure that I’ve lost some. I find them an interesting light on how creative people can be with language, and how humorous.

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4 Responses to Family words

  1. Father Steve says:

    It was my habit, when was taking a lot of trips to lecture around the country, to always bring my children back a gift which was in some way connected with the city I visited, e.g. a tee shirt from the college there. They mispronounced the word “surprise” by asking, upon my return, if I had brought them “some prize.”

    They also adopted a word which I had read in John Irving’s “The World According to Garp” and warned one another, when swimming at the ocean, to beware of the “undertoad.”

    My son, in particular, did not care for eggs fried or poached, but he would eat them if they were scrambled and then topped with ktchup. He always asked for “strangled eggs” and still does.

    Now you’ve got me recollecting!

  2. ecreith says:

    “Strangled eggs”! I love it. I like the Undertoad, too.
    It makes me so happy that you read my blog!

  3. Pauline Clark says:

    When Courtney was small, Gerry would walk through the mill yard to his mother’s with her. It was deep with sawdust and he would always say to her, “this is hard walkin’…” One day we drove by Midway Lumber where we saw huge piles of sawdust and Courtney exclaimed, “Wow! Look at all the hardwalkin’! We still all call sawdust “hard walkin'”–even my sisters and their families! Great post, Elizabeth!

  4. Pauline Clark says:

    By the way, Gerry thinks that would be a good submission for Reader’s Digest.
    Also, whenever we ate too much we all say we “are as full as a bull on a pull.” Not sure where that came from either!

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