The Word “Gullible” Doesn’t Actually Appear in the Dictionary

Teddy said it was a hat, So I put it on. Now dad is saying, ‘where the heck’s the toilet plunger gone?’

–Shel Silverstein

In Northern Minnesota, winter is long and spring capricious. By April, residents’ moods correlate to the thermometer. 

That’s why, on a rare, glorious, sun-drenched Saturday when I was out for a run, I decided to pull off at the beach and sit for a spell on a driftwood log. 

And by “sit for a spell” I mean “people watch,” and by “on a driftwood log,” I mean “and eavesdrop.”

To my right was a mother with her two young sons. Languidly lying on the warm sand, the mother kept one eye open, watching her boys make ruts in the sand with the tires of their big plastic truck. As is the way with preschoolers, their chatter and energy were ceaseless; Mom had more than earned a few horizontal minutes. 

Increasing my delight with this family scene was the fact that the younger boy had a dream, a fervent wish expressed when he ran to the edge of the lake and yelled, ten times in succession, “I weally want to go potty in da wake! Mom, I weally want to go potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake, Mom! Mom, I weally want to go potty in da wake! I WEALLY WANT TO GO POTTY IN DA WAKE! Mom. Maaaawm. I weally want to to potty in da wake! I weally want to go potty in da wake! Mom, Mom, Mom: I weally want to go potty in da wake! Hey, wake, I weally want to go potty in you!”

As he yelled, amused because he wasn’t my problem, I snapped a quick photo of his earnest posture and posted it online, using his words as the text.

Later, when I got home, Allegra asked me, smiling but not completely certain, “Did that really happen? Did that little boy actually yell ‘I weally want to go potty in da wake’ like you posted?”

Heck, yeah, he did. Why would you need to ask, daughter o’ mine?

“Well, I never know with you. Sometimes stuff seems like it could be real, and then it isn’t. Sometimes stuff isn’t real, but then it seems like it is.”

Fair enough. I’m nothing if not a steadily spewing font of bunk. However, I would have thought by now the 17-year-old would have learned an attitude of healthy skepticism. Ah, but life has given us a great gift: she’s still beautifully gullible.

Years ago in a quiet seaside town, my younger brother and I were paddling in the sea, and a thing that looked like a giant plug floated past us, so my brother took it to my mom and dad. My dad proceeded to shout “Quick, put the plug back in; the water will drain away!” I’d never seen my brother run so fast — to get this ‘plug’ back in to nothing.

I have a wicked big sister. Who told me that vermicelli (sprinkles) on top of fairy cakes was actually vermin jelly and was really disgusting and made of rolled up rat jelly and since she was my kind big sister she would eat it for me. So for years I scraped off the topping off fairy cakes (cupcakes) and gave it to her.

My mom convinced me that if you don’t leap off the end of the escalator, you get sucked in and have to go round again.

My sister used to work with a really gullible girl in a kitchen. There was a block of ice in the sink one day from where they’d been cleaning out the freezers. When she asked what it was there for, the head chef told her he needed it cleaning. Poor girl scrubbed it for ages and kept getting upset that it was getting smaller.

We took our South African friends to watch Greyhound racing at the famous “Walthamstow Dogs” (or “to the digs” as we all fondly called it, thereafter). I told my friend that greyhounds ran, but that if you were lucky you might get to see a “freestyle” race, where any breed of dog can run, where they have poodles and chihuahuas racing against corgis and Alsatians and Labradors and everything. She was disappointed that in the several visits we had there, not one of the races was the Freestyle one.

My two older brothers and I convinced our younger brother that tornadoes happened spontaneously anywhere, anytime. So every time we wanted to distract him, we’d just point and shout, “Tornado!” He’d drop whatever he was holding and fall into the crash position. It was really handy, actually. Also, I may or may not have convinced him that speed bumps were where they buried dead policemen.

When my oldest was riding in the back seat of the car on a long trip, he started bothering one of his siblings. I told him to stop bugging them. He couldn’t figure out how I knew what he was doing behind me. I told him that I had “eyes in the back of my head.” Later I found him searching my head, trying to find them. I told him that they were very small so that they could be covered by my hair, but still see. He believed it for a while. The backseat was much calmer for the rest of the trip.

On holiday with my Other Half, walking along in my flip flops, I stumble, and he says, “Well what do you expect, as you’ve got one of those defective pairs.” So I ask what he means, and he says, “Well obviously, they’re called flip flops, as that’s the sound they make when you walk in them, but the defective pairs aren’t made properly, and they are the flip flips or flop flops, depending on the sound. And they trip you up.” So, I spend the next hour or so telling him to be quiet so I can figure out which ones I’ve got.

Last summer I convinced my brother (whom I hadn’t seen in a long time and was quite lit from moonshine) that my friend Kristine — who had traveled with me to visit — was my sister. We called her Ophelia. We look similar in appearance. My cousin and other brother took it up with, “Your dad was a player.” We kept it up the entire visit and never told him the truth. He still thinks he has a half sister and wonders if there are more.

My all-time favorite story of Allegra’s gullibility involved, fittingly for the girl who adores office supplies and organizational tools, a whiteboard.

For years, we’ve kept an easel in our bathroom, one side of which is a whiteboard. The presence of that equipment in the bathroom has been an ongoing source of familial fun — we pose questions, draw pictures, send good-luck wishes, make to-do lists, always using the space as a place for play and interaction.

One time, Allegra wrote a prompt at the top of the board:

“Illustrate your favorite song.”

In response, I drew:

Next to my drawing, I wrote:

No, it’s not ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ Yeah, maybe that rain there is purple. But, actually, my favorite song, as illustrated here, is a little-known ditty called ‘I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up.’ It was a huge hit in 1948 when Bing Crosby first crooned it.

In my mind, that song title was so nonsensical that no one could mistake it for real.

No one has never met Allegra.

That night, she accused, “Your song on the whiteboard isn’t real.”

Well of course not, silly. Who could possibly have thought it was?

She continued, her eyes lit with humor as she shook her head, “Well, I wasn’t sure. I mean, at first, I just though it was ‘Purple Rain’ because PRINCE, but then you threw me with the part about Bing Crosby; I felt like I’d heard of him, so it seemed possible.”

There is a kind of laughter I occasionally fall into. It’s deep and barking, and I can’t control it — a sort of joyful hysteria — the kind of hooting that would get someone sent to the principal’s office for disrupting history class. When this laughter sets in, I can’t stop it until I’m crying, wiping away tears as my belly continues to pip with giggles. As Allegra continued her confession, that laughter started, and I had to grab at the desk for support.

“Anyhow, I googled Bing Crosby + 1948 + umbrella + song. And it was really confusing because he did have an umbrella song recorded in 1948, but it was called ‘A Fella with an Umbrella,’ so then I thought ‘Oh, so that’s the song Mom likes. She just got the title wrong.’ But it still didn’t seem right. I mean, you drew a woman, not a guy. And there was nothing about a dead horse in it when I listened to it. So then I decided you might have made it up. Your favorite song isn’t really ‘I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up,’ right?”

No, sweetheart. You dear, open-hearted love bug. My favorite song is not “I Like an Umbrella I Could Hide a Dead Horse in, if the Occasion Ever Came Up.”

My oldest brother made me swear off Chinese food for years by telling me that the slimy bean sprouts in Chun King’s canned chow mein were actually tiny penises taken from Chinese boys.

My dad convinced me that a small bump on the side of his face was actually where a spider had crawled up his face really, really slowly, and his skin had grown over it.

When my older brother and I told my little brother his head was too fat to fit in between the bars on the teeter-totter-swing-thingy, he plunged in. And got stuck. Totally stuck. Screaming his head almost off stuck. Almost. Our parents arrived. All the situation did was enrage my father, who tried pulling the bars apart, getting angrier every minute. Our little brother was hysterical. Mom, enabler of father’s rage, rubbed a stick of margarine on the side of my brother’s face so he might be slippery enough to be yanked out. A few feet away, my older brother and I were almost dying of laughter, so glad it wasn’t us there in the chaos.

I believed for years elbow grease was something you brought from shops and looked for it in stores everywhere until I finally asked a woman in Woolworth’s where I’d find it. Everyone laughed for hours. I felt so dumb as I was 24.

When I was eight and my middle brother was almost three, I told him if he put Red Hots up his nose he’d be able to fly. He believed me, at least long enough to try it. Fortunately we did not have to go to the emergency room to get the Red Hots out, but I still got in big trouble.

I convinced my children when they were small that McDonald’s was ONLY for travelers. You could only eat at McDonald’s if you were away from home. They didn’t ever even ask if we could go there, they were so convinced. Until my oldest was about 8 and spotted some friends pulling out of the drive-thru. “Wait, Mom! How can they be at McDonald’s? They just live down the street! They’re not allowed to go there!” That ruse lasted so much longer than I ever dreamed it could, and I laughed so hard at her outrage, I shot coffee out my nose. I had to pull over. I was weeping. The children were, remarkably, not amused.

My husband convinced my best friend that the castle was in ruins because it was the place the first elephant was kept, and it got angry and knocked down the walls. He then went on to say that that is how the pub called the Elephant & Castle was named. She was so convinced it was the truth that she went and asked in the gift shop if they had any books about the elephant that destroyed the castle!

I would tell my best friend’s daughter that I determined her sex by tapping her mother’s stomach over and over again while saying the word “girl.” Somehow she believed this long after she knew about sex.

Later on the same day when I had seen the boy who weally wanted to go potty in da wake, Allegra and Paco and I were laughing about how Allegra is so smart and such a practical person, yet she has this charming purity that allows her to believe whatever people tell her.

As we reviewed her best moments, Paco and I were in the kitchen while she sat on the couch on the back porch — communicating through a screen, with me the priest and her the sinner. At one point, laughter and body converged in Paco, and he emitted a long string of bubbles from his nethers. 

“Oh, crap!” I said, mock-despair in my voice. “There’s a gas leak in the kitchen.” Paco and I smirked at each other. When are fart jokes not funny?

On the porch, immediately alarmed, Allegra fretted, “WHAT? We have a gas leak?”

A tribal elder was telling me about the kinds of animals they trapped and ate when he was a kid. I asked him if they trapped and ate muskrat. “Yup,” he grunted, as he was a man of few words. I asked him if they trapped and ate beaver. “Yup.” After a long silence – several minutes – he asked me, “Did you ever eat crow?” I said, “No, I’ve never eaten crow.” Two days later, I got the joke.

My husband used to tell his sister she was adopted. She’s nearly 40 years old and can to this day recount the way he’d take her by the shoulders, point her toward the mirror and say “Look at you.. You don’t look like EITHER of them.” She entertained nagging doubts for years.

I have a scar on my forehead from my first chicken pock. I used to tell my new friends that my brother tried to pierce me with a one hole punch.

My brother convinced me that I had the sled (our trusty Flexible Flyer) twice as long as he did because I got it on the way up, and he got it on the way down.

My mum had this pretty necklace and convinced me that it was filled with sleeping gas, so I had to be very careful not to touch it, or I might release the sleeping gas. She also had me convinced that she used it to rob banks on occasion. And that she was an alien and had been born from an egg. And that all the people and images in magazines and commercials weren’t actually real, just computer generated representations of something that miiiight be made someday.

Whilst on holiday, we went on a boat trip past this giant rock that mountain goats live on. My boyfriend told me that the goat’s legs are shorter on one side to make it easier for them to walk round the mountain, so they don’t fall off slopes. About a year later we were randomly having a conversation about goats at work – I thought I was being super-intelligent telling everyone my ‘fact’ about mountain goats…..but they all burst out laughing, and someone said how do they go the other way round the mountain?! I was like “Well, I guess they just walk in one direction.”

I believed it when my older brothers told me that you MUST wave hello to a police officer whenever you see one or that they can arrest you on the spot. For years I’d panic if I forgot to wave, so I’d turn around and wave frantically so that they knew I was a law-abiding good boy.

My sister and I fought pretty much every day of our life. No one really liked being around us. We had a beach house about five hours away, and all parents can attest to long car rides with kids saying, “She touched me,” “She’s looking at me,” etc. They put a cooler and other stuff between us. When we were young, maybe about 8-9, my father nonchalantly said he needed us to count the telephone poles silently, so we spent a majority of the ride counting telephone poles.

A few weeks ago on my way down to the Twin Cities, I stopped at some outlet stores, thinking I’d take a wander around The Gap. One can never stay too much on top of cargo-pocket-based fashion, after all.

45 minutes later, a heap of clothes in my arm, I headed towards the check-out. Ever the magpie, I noticed a bottle of lovely purple nail polish on a shelf by the cash registers. Whispering, it told me it would wike to come home wif me.

Back at home a few days later, I put the bottle onto the shelf of polishes that Allegra and I share. Not too long after that, I noticed she had pulled that new polish and set it on her dresser in the spot where she stages her “soon-to-use” bottles. 

Semi-predictably, because some teenagers lead with awkward coltishness, gangling their way through their days, it didn’t take long before a CRASH followed by an “Uh-oh” emerged from her room.

I didn’t need to ask. I knew exactly what had just happened. “So I’m guessing that sound was the new nail polish breaking?” I called as I skittered down the hall.

Wow. Nice. It looked as though a steam-roller had done gear-shifting practice all over Barney the Dinosaur. 

Allegra was already on the floor, picking up pieces of glass. “I’ll grab tissues ’cause that stuff is going to dry quickly,” I offered. 

“Yeah, it’s already drying,” she added. Within minutes, we were wiping her floor and our hands with nail polish remover. Soon, the crisis was over, and the ribbing could begin.

For the next few days, I’d periodically drop some guilt on her — “We hadn’t even used that new polish yet. It was so pretty. I drove two hours to find exactly that shade, and now we’ll never get to enjoy it.”

Eventually, I realized that Allegra and her team had an upcoming track meet in the town where the outlet stores are located, so I was able to add to the teasing: “That’s going to be so awesome on Friday when you ask the bus driver to pull over at The Gap for a quick minute so you can dash in and buy a replacement bottle. I’m sure your teammates won’t protest.”

The day of the track meet came. On such days, Byron and I usually text her to check in on how her races went, to see what they’re having for dinner, to find out if there is an ETA and if she’d like someone to head to the high school to meet the bus and walk home with her.

That Friday, I also texted:

It seemed clear to me I was joking.


The next afternoon, the guileless girl checked. “Did you really think I asked the bus driver to go to the outlet stores? I feel like you actually thought I was bringing home a new bottle of nail polish — I mean, you were so serious with what you wrote in that text.”

No, sweetpea. Yer old ma was just joshing you.

“Oh. Well, I couldn’t tell. I thought you were going to be disappointed.”

Staff at camp convinced me that fish don’t have babies but, rather, they divide in half down the middle and grow their respective missing parts. They convinced another that the first thing you do when building a fire is make sure their aren’t any rocks in the fire that could explode from the heat.

Our little sister was making chocolate-covered raisins one evening. Lib convinced her to make some chocolate-covered dog food and took it to school the next day to feed to her friends. To this day she swears some of them loved it.

When he sprained his thumb, I told my son they may have to amputate it and give him a hook. Later, when concerned mothers from the PTA were calling about his “upcoming surgery,” I realized it’d gone too far.

My brother’s father-in-law convinced my now-wife at Thanksgiving that John Madden’s six-legged turkey was a real turkey that they created with a mix of breeding and nuclear mutation. She believed us for half a football game.

I bought Catholicism hook, line and sinker. Eating and drinking blood and body of Christ. Devil potentially inhabiting every person I met, just trying to trip me up. Saying prayers in succession would earn me forgiveness for pouting when my mom made me brush my teeth. Brimstone and fire for those who didn’t attend church.

My kids (probably until they were 12 or so) thought that time ran wonky on New Year’s Eve. I think they assumed that because it was the end of the year the flow of time was unpredictable, or something like that. In reality, hubby and I were setting all the house clocks back by two hours so the kids could celebrate at midnight but we could still go to bed at a decent hour.

From Santa Cruz, California, it’s possible to see Monterey across the bay, and when the fog is in it looks like an island. The family joke is to tell people new to the view that it’s Hawaii and then try to keep a straight face while they ooh over how close it looks. My husband fell for it (years ago), and we’re still teasing him…

My roommates put raisins in my toothpaste, and I thought it was bat shit (which they encouraged). They egged me on to call the Crest hotline. Then they sat in the other room laughing while I was on the phone freaking out asking if the people who stirred the batch were eating Oreos.

I love Allegra’s innocence so much, and while I want her to develop a nose for hogwash, I also hope, in the soft corners of my heart, that she is allowed a life so fortunate her defenses never have to be raised higher than an arched eyebrow.

Fervently, I wish for her continued artlessness — mostly so I can tell her:

“That means you are a person with an appreciation for art but who doesn’t own any pieces of significance.”

I can’t wait to watch her face as she nods, absorbing a new word into her vocabulary.

Tip of the hat to contributors on Facebook and from the forum who shared tales of gullibility.

If you care to share, click a square:



By Jocelyn

There's this game put out by the American Girl company called "300 Wishes"--I really like playing it because then I get to marvel, "Wow, it's like I'm a real live American girl who has 300 wishes, and that doesn't suck, especially compared to being a dead one with none."

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