When my daughter was two, her developing speech couldn’t quite articulate the words hair clip. Instead, what came out of her mouth was hippie kip.
Naturally, charmed by our creation, Byron and I started copying her words, and in no time at all, a hair fastener, in our household lexicon, was always referred to as a hippie kip.
Eleven years later, with that two-year-old now heading into the homestretch of middle school, I can be heard on windy days telling the kids and Byron–spitting out the words through a mouthful of hair–that I sure do wish I had a hippie kip stashed in my purse. Admittedly, that thought generally finishes with me noting that I’ve left my purse at home and then, after rubbing my dry lips together, asking the assembled crew if anyone has a lip balm I can use.
What with all of my dry lip assuagers being at home in my purse.
Then I usually announce that I’m hungry. At this point, I ask Byron to go buy me some food.
Since all my money and credit cards are at home. In my purse.
Suffice it to say, I rarely have anything, much less a hippie kip, on hand when I need it, and subsequently my family is well accustomed to watching me cough up hairballs (through parched lips, as my stomach growls). They don’t bat an eye; they’re used to it: we live together. And that’s why we speak the same language. Indeed, most households are rife with specialized words and phrases, a unique familyspeak only insiders can understand.
We have friends who have a word for the leftover crumbs in, say, a pie pan–those random bits that don’t comprise a full serving but which are worth scraping out with the tines of a fork or pinching out with the fingers. The word they use for this pinch of bonus delectablity is schnibbles. These same friends (both with strong environmental education backgrounds) can be heard asking their kids, “Do you want limpets for lunch?” when they’re referring to this:
I hooted when I found out about limpets because, in our house, we have a special name for a related Annie’s product:
Our name for this box of yummy stuff is bunny hats. As far as we can recall, one time when the kids were little, the grocery store was out of regular bunnies (aka limpets), and so, in a stroke of parenting genius, we convinced them that the hats the bunnies wear are equally tasty. To this day, both kids believe shell-shaped pasta noodles double as hats for forest creatures.
We’ve also taught them to call pasta covered with pesto sauce green noodles.
Thusly educated, they will be standouts on their college campuses.
Picture them marching into the cafeteria during Orientation Week and requesting heaping plates of green noodle bunny hats. They’ll be rushed by sororities, drafted onto the best ultimate frisbee teams, and awarded premature honorary doctorates.
Oh, but there’s more.
After the members of my family watched the following video,
…the phrase “Worry about yourself” entered into heavy rotation around these parts. A few weeks later, the kids then had a visit with their wee cousin–of an age with Miss “Worry About Yourself”–and came home using the cousin’s special phrase for nearly every question she’s asked. In response to most queries, she replies, “Maybe you’d like to.” For example: “Say, Toddler Cousin, it’s dinner time. Could you put your toys away before we eat?” Her response? “Maybe you’d like to.”
What’s charming in a toddler is less so in kids over five feet tall, as it turns out, especially when you’ve just told them it’s their turn to empty the dishwasher.
Family shorthand evolves out of shared experiences, but it also comes from sheer proximity. When you live with someone, you start to speak a common language. I have any number of usages that would confound an outsider but which my nears-‘n-dears can follow easily.
Were I to say, “Hey, Paco, have you seen my putrescent egg thingie?” he would know immediately I was referring to the bottle of deer repellant spray that I use on the most-besieged flowers in our yard, a bottle I’m remarkably good at setting down in random garden spots and then wondering where it went.
As well, Byron knows that my brain refuses to remember the correct name for the Summit brewing company’s Horizon Red Ale and that I will only understand what he’s talking about if he uses my special name for it: “Red Hook.” Sometimes at beer o’clock, he asks, “Would you like me to pour you a Horizon–you know, the one you call Red Hook?” Before I can answer him (YES!), I actually have to reframe his offer: “You mean, would I like a Red Hook, which the rest of you insist on calling Horizon Red Ale?”
One time, the kids and I walked to the neighborhood ice cream shop, and on our way home, as we meandered through a block of local businesses, a member of our group announced a need to speed up the pace because–how to put it genteely?–that group member’s colon, spurred on by something delicious and chocolatey, had taken a notion. We needed a toilet, and we needed it sooner rather than later. At the moment the “let’s walk faster” announcement was made, we were passing the office building of a chiropractor named Dr. Daniel P. Dock. Of course, because there was no adult present in the group to shut down unnecessary bowel talk, our conversation quickly shifted from the announcement of “Could we walk faster? I need the bathroom” to “Don’t you think the name Dr. Daniel P. Dock sounds like a great euphemism for pooping?” Since that day, therefore, the words “I need to make a visit to Dr. Daniel P. Dock” mean, in reality, pull. the. car. over. at. the. next. gas. station. and. I. mean. hit. the. brakes. NOW.
Examples of family-speranto are endless, particularly after our intense year of togetherness in Turkey, a time when we gathered phrases and words unto ourselves in more than one language and in a variety of memorable situations. When Byron sees a phone call coming in from me, he still answers it with the Turkish “Efandim!”, and we still drop the word komshu (“neighbor”) to indicate we’re in the presence of a greedy soul who’d negotiate a fee before saving a four-year-old from drowning.
Komshu there had barely finished entwining me into that headscarf of hers before she shouted “TEN LIRA!” It was a long year of dodging her overtures on our way from the house to the bus.
It should come as no surprise, then, that my all-time favorite bit of Family Code Talk was born in Turkey, albeit in English.
There was this day, you see,
a day when we’d sent Allegra out of the house as Canary in Coalmine, to check the path for offending komshu. Our aim? To get from the house to the bus without being sold a significant bill of fare along the way.
After dropping to all fours and scuttling along the roadway like crabs, we made it to the village square unaccosted, boarded the bus (aka dolmush), and made our weekly ride into the nearby city of Nevshehir.
They have a mall in Nevshehir.
It’s a big deal.
In this mall, devout Muslims and bewildered Americans alike can explore an earring store, a toy store, an underwear store, some shoe stores, a sausage store, a couple of coffee joints, a Burger King, a liquor store, an electronics store, and a place that makes all kinds of baked potatoes, including ones with pickles and kernels of corn ladled on top.
With such a variety of shops, all topped off by a comprehensive food court, the mall is hopping.
Clearly, a place like this needs lots of employees. I mean, someone’s got to heap the pickles onto those baked potatoes, right?
On the day in question, one mall employee was hard at work clearing up after food court patrons. He wiped tables, swept floors, tossed trash. He wore a beige shirt with a name tag, and he was, to put the finest of points on it, the ultimate service worker. He couldn’t have been happier.
At first, we didn’t notice him. The kids and I had our faces buried in baskets of Popeye’s chicken, and Byron was lapping the last bit of lamb off his Turkish pizza. More than likely, we were exchanging congratulatory tales of komshu dodged.
Hearing our English, the table-wiping employee began tightening his orbit around our table. The moment Byron lifted the last bite of pizza off its plate, Mall Employee Man eased in for the grab, reaching for the cafeteria-style tray nestled between Byron’s elbows. Quickly, Byron reached out, trying to find the right combination of words and gestures to indicate that he wasn’t done, that he still wanted his drink and the napkins that were on the tray.
“Yok, lutfen. Sag olun” (“No, please. Thanks”), Byron squeaked out, as Mall Employee Man attempted to ease Paco’s tray out from under his half-eaten meal. Under his breath, Byron advised Paco, “Just grab your chicken and drink, if we can’t stop him from taking your tray.”
Feigning surprise, as he’d been quite obviously eavesdropping for some time, Mall Employee Man said, “You speak English? I speak English!”
Quickly replaying the last few minutes’ family conversation in m mind, I heaved a sigh of relief when I realized we hadn’t been discussing the size of Mall Employee Man’s mustache (fair to middlin’, but a ‘B’ for effort) or trash talking the Flock of Seagulls-ish haircuts of the Young Turks at the table next to us.
And, yes, our familial unit does spend an inordinate time on follicular-based conversation topics.
With no need to feel sheepish for having bashed his ‘stache, we straightened into the posture of Friendly Foreigners, ready to engage our interest in this man’s English abilities.
“Did you learn English in school?” I began.
“No. Well, little bit. When young. I learn real English England. I live England seven years.”
Picking a bit of lamb out of his teeth, Byron also picked up the line of inquiry: “What were you doing in England for seven years?”
“I have cousin England. I go England work cousin restaurant. Turkish restaurant. I kebap English people.”
“That sounds very interesting,” my English teacher self continued encouragingly. “It must have been good to have family there and to have a waiting for you.”
“Well,” Mall Employee Man replied, his face suddenly becoming less animated, more grim, “it maybe not so good.”
Always a fan of a wrench thrown into the works, I leaned in as Byron asked, “So it was not a good experience for you in England?”
“Ohhhh. It too much fun. Too much fun not good,” our new friend explained. “I have friends. I go out night. I go out all nights. I no sleep then I work. Seven years. Too much. I need come home.”
So much story fell between his broken sentences; our kids only heard that Mall Employee Man hadn’t slept enough in England. Thanks to the nine-kabillion decibel mosque speaker across from our house in the dusty village, they hadn’t slept enough in Turkey. From a child’s point of view, his story was simple.
For Byron and me, however, Mall Employee Man’s experience in England was rich. The story that fell between his broken sentences smacked of women and booze and 3 a.m. yelling in an alley. As I imagined a young Turkish man discovering London’s streets in the late-night hours after bone-numbing shifts washing dishes, the sounds of glass breaking and tires screeching filled my head.
There was a moment of silence there in the food court that day as we screened our respective mental movies of MEM’s years in England.
Recalling those years took a toll on Mall Employee Man. His shoulders sagged a bit; his middling mustache drooped. Resting onto our table the cafeteria trays he was holding, he slumped forward, taking a break from the weight of memory. Then, slowly,
with all the weariness of the world compacted into a single gesture,
he lifted a meaty paw and wiped it across both eyes, exhaling dejectedly.
His face was woebegone, desolate–haunted by visions of Funkytown, Bad Girls, A Celebration That Lasted Throughout the Years–as he spoke again. Summing up his seven years in England and the mark they’d left on him,
he began, “I leave England because…”
before uttering the phrase that our family still uses to describe overwhelmed senses; exhaustion and limpness; the desire to crawl home and hide under a soft blanket:
“…too much disco.”