When I was about seven, my parents signed up for a family membership to Melbourne Zoo under a program was called Friends of the Zoo. Its benefits included special excursions. We only went on one of these. It was whale watching in Warrnambool, a chilly July day. We caught the train from Spencer Street with other FOTZ. ‘You can pick them,’ my mother noted very early in the day: our fellow Friends were dressed in rainbow alpaca-knit jumpers and woollen berets. On the train they frowned dimly at my sister and I as we shared a packet of chocolate Tiny Teddies. They seemed to be exclusively schoolteachers, and bent on sharing their knowledge as loudly and forcefully as possible for the benefit of everyone else on board. ‘SEE THAT WIND FARM, THEODORE? THAT’S A WIND FARM.’ To my seven-year-old puzzlement, they smiled blithely while their children bellowed and sang and ran up and down the train carriage. They were still smiling blithely when little Theodore took off all his clothes and waded into the freezing surf at Warrnambool, evidently unimpressed with the whales. I believe the Zoo staff member leading the tour had to buy a thermal blanket for the child after he turned blue.
To this day, there is a particular sort of person we describe as ‘FOTZ’. It’s hard to define exactly, but I know ’em when I see ’em. FOTZ is the intersection between dagginess, hippydom, and social ineptitude. Their beetroots are organic and their children are gifted. They wear their sense of superiority like a defensive cloak. When I started thinking about this article, I asked my mother what characterises a FOTZ. ‘It’s standing on top of the tour guide so as not to miss a thing,’ she said, ‘but not wearing your listening ears because you don’t have that capacity.’
FOTZ isn’t the only entry in our family dictionary. A lot of our words are just childhood mistakes; once funny, now used in earnest. A USB memory device is a ‘swizzle stick’; slippers are ‘pissies’. A particularly charming expression, meaning ‘to be satiated’, is ‘ready to vomit out my bottom’, coined by my then four-year-old sister. If a surprise is spoiled, we tell one another to ‘drink forget juice’.
I’m equally fascinated by other people’s family dictionaries. ‘Most of mine are because of my dad’s thick Italian accent – we say “for shoe” instead of “for sure”, and “K-Mart” is “K-Market”,’ says Sarah.
‘On my mum’s side of the family we call a rude or obnoxious woman a “Madge” and a rude or obnoxious man a “Bruce”,’ Jo tells me. ‘Like, “I was in the supermarket and there was this Bruce in line in front of me.”’
Small electronic battery-operated devices seem to have a special place in these micro-lexicons. Grace’s family calls the remote control ‘the click thing’. Ali’s family calls the garage opener a ‘phoofa’. (We called it a ‘donger’ – although interestingly, we use phoofa in the context of overexerting oneself, e.g. ‘Don’t lift that by yourself; you’ll do your phoofa valve.’)
It turns out there’s a name for family dictionaries. For some time now, linguists have referred to sociolects, or social dialects – a manner of speaking shared by a particular social group. One might talk about the sociolect of Twitter, for example, or the sociolect of a particular age group. In 1991, linguist Bent Søndergaard identified ‘familylects’. Although he used the term in the context of communication within a multilingual nuclear family, it can be broadly understood as the sociolect of a family – its own private language. Since then, others have written on ‘family words’ – Brian MacWhinney, for example, describes ‘family-specific forms’ as being ‘much like child-invented forms that have been taken over by the whole family’.
Of course, familylects are not specific to ‘family’ in the narrowest sense. A social worker friend who works with asylum seekers tells me that many of her clients refer to their ‘boatmates’. Our language is shaped by our experiences. Words and phrases are born of shared, remembered dialogue. Sometimes the familylect constitutes no more than a series of private jokes between friends, unremarkable and unexplainable.
The idea is that a shared set of experiences – indeed, a collective memory – gives rise to a sort of linguistic shorthand. It’s almost like a code, except it can’t really be cracked: the memory is the key, even when the memory is hazy. I don’t recall the first time I referred to a wedding as a ‘wetting’, believing my diction to be superior. I was about three. But I do know my parents adopted the pronunciation (along with ‘putting’ for ‘pudding’), and continue to use it to this day. The catch is this: these words only exist in our familylect. Were I to order a ‘putting’ for dessert in a restaurant, it would be a simple mispronunciation. Stripped of its memory, it is stripped of its meaning.
Sometimes I’m conscious of wanting to document our familylect, or wanting to edit it. (There have been plenty of funnier mistakes than the time my sister called Paddington Bear “Chuggington”, but somehow, that one just stuck.) But that’s the thing: these words and phrases are organic by nature. They come about through specific, unrepeatable circumstances. Just like you can’t choose your family, you can’t choose what goes in your family dictionary.
Image: Chris JL / Flickr