In a Word

On the way to the horse barn this week, I found myself tooling along behind a cement truck. When I was a small child, I did not know the correct name for this vehicle, because the family term was, Putty-Putty-Ment-Mixer. I have no idea who coined that appellation, but my siblings all know what it means.

They similarly know that my mother, among others, used the term bombosity to refer to the backside, and she was also fond of the term ish-kabibbles to mean, “Oh, what nonsense.”

My father, when intent on sternly admonishing an errant child, began his tirades with, “Now look, chum…” and chum was accompanied by a downward poke of the index finger, extended from an otherwise closed fist. We don’t have come-to-Jesus moments in the Burrowes family, we have now-look-chum moments.

My siblings would also know who Tanya MacBride is. In our family she is legendary, also imaginary. My mom was at some academic cocktail party, widowed for the evening once again by that notorious strumpet Science (meaning my dad was off in the corner rhapsodizing to some colleague about tri-ethyl-methyl-butyl-mercaptan*), and a visiting professor asked Mom who she was. She was a pretty redhead, that’s who, but she told this guy she was Collen Burrowes, and her stage name had been Tanya MacBride.

Tanya, according to my mother, had been a prima ballerina in her heyday, and danced with all the major international companies. Swan Lake was her favorite from the classic repertoire, and I forget whether Nureyev ever partnered her. If he didn’t, his loss.

This was a complete fiction woven by my mother and a few servings of Old Blabbermouth. She never told her conversation partner that she was having him on, but the next day, in tones more bewildered than contrite, she explained to my father what she’d done. He thought her tale was hilarious. From that day forward, anybody in my family having an alcohol-inspired flight of grandiosity (or mendacity) was having a Tanya MacBride moment.

Authors are supposed to capitalize on the power of words to evoke associations and connections. The best example I can think of is Mary Balogh’s character, Wulfric, Duke of Bewscastle. He is described as  silver-eyed and elegant, and his signature word is “doubtless.” If Bewcastle opines that you will doubtless want to do such and such, he’s telling you in duke-speak: Do it, or get your affairs in order.

One of my alma maters is Penn State. If you stand at  a busy intersection in any major city and sing, “Fish Heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads!” loudly enough for twenty minutes, some Penn State alum of a certain age will yell back, “Eat ’em up, yum!” It’s a stupid little dark nursery-rhyme song, but it can also unite two strangers with a mere dozen words. Language, used skillfully can create bonds in seconds, and evoke memories from half a century ago.

Does your family or your workplace have unique vocabulary? Have you seen authors use signature words (or expletives) with particular skill? I’ll add three commenters to me ARC list for Lady Violet Pays a Call.

*the compound that gives skunk spray it’s distinctive odor, detectable by the human nose at the level of parts per billion, and thus used to scent natural gas so leaks are obvious.



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17 comments on “In a Word

  1. That was a grand story! My favorite family saying was my grandmother expressing “Oh, for cute!” My least favorite was my mother saying “Because I said so!”.

  2. Daddy picked up one from my granny on Mom’s side long before I was ever born. Probably because Granny lived with my parents for awhile before I was born & Dad was the cook in our family, as she was in hers. If I asked what we were eating & got the response “Mucksins & Gommins”, I knew it meant whatever leftovers were in the fridge & kitchen, all thrown together.

    Granny birthed 16 children, 14 living, & Mom was the youngest, so she did a power of cooking for a lot of people in her day. I was two when she died at 82, but I still remember our trip to see her in the hospital in Kentucky & her joyful reaching for me, face alight, as she cried, “Bring me my baby’s baby!” Her hands were so warm & she could crack walnuts one handed after a lifetime of milking by hand. We had her 3 legged milking stool for years until it split after close to a century & a half of family backsides + every kid in the neighborhood perching there. One of my prize possessions is a page tucked in the family Bible where she traced her hand & wrote the full names & birth dates of all her children. My hand fits her tracing perfectly.

  3. I don’t recall where I got it from, but I am in the habit of following a less than flattering or flat out derogatory remark with “and I mean that in the nicest possible way.”

    Almost always good for a laugh

  4. Our dad was a very easy going man ,not a lot caused him any worries.He took everything in his stride.However when he did get vexed(which was rare) he would say blinkin earhole and then walk away.We knew we had upset him.But what strange words,we never heard them from anyone else.Perhaps it was a Kentish saying or farmers talk.We shall never know we said our farewells in 1999.A lovely kind man loved and liked by many.His grandchildren remember his storytelling,they would sit around him knees crossed listening intensely.When my grandchildren came along I would spin the same yarns and have them fascinated’s a family thing and will be passed on.Treasures and memories never forgot.

  5. My husband uses the word “gibbit” to describe those annoying little bugs that fly around your head and plague you in the summer. My kids were teens before they found out that giggit isn’t really a word! Even the grandkids now talk about being plagued by gibbits flying around their heads.

  6. Mr. Nobody Bird is a well-known fellow in my family of origin. One grumpy morning, in an attempt to cheer up my younger brother, who must have been around four at the time, my mother or father (can’t remember who—maybe Dad) encouraged him to name the bluebird who made his home in a tree out our living room window. Brother was unimpressed with this effort to cheer him up and christened the avian “Mr. Nobody Bird,” which my father uses to this day as an affectionate nickname for my brother (now pushing forty), and in the family parlance means “a curmudgeon.”

    Would love to be on the ARC for Violet. Have -adored- that series!!!

  7. Here in Ohio, we know that a jubilant call of the letters O H will result in an equally proud, jubilant response of I O. It’s the call of Ohio State fans all over the state. It works in every environment from board rooms to bars. You’re never alone in Ohio if call out the demographic-less greeting “O H”

  8. Well, my Central Florida Dad talked about “he cow poopy” when we were growing up. I was an adult before I realized that was his way of saying BS. Don’t know if he made it up or heard it somewhere and he’s gone so I cannot ask. Otherwise, since he was in the Air Force while we were children and we lived lots of place in the US and overseas, the only real Southern-ism we are used to is “ya’ll” and that’s one I like so much I say it even when I’m not in the South. The other side effect of my life is that I pick up accents whenever I live somewhere for a while. Not long after I moved to LA, we were in line at Griffith Observatory to use the telescope to view Jupiter or something and a man near us in line asked me if I was from Chicago. I had lived there for 6 years before moving to LA and apparently he detected that sound. It turns out he was a linguist and studied accents but I was very surprised since I didn’t think I had any accent at all at that point.

  9. I had to laugh at “Putty-Putty-Ment-Mixer”. When the kids were little we started calling steam shovels and other building equipment Snorts. We got the term from P.D. Eastman’s children’s book Are You My Mother? Twenty five years later we will use the term occasionally.

  10. My Mom said ishkabbible. She said a lot of things I’ve just plain forgotten. I don’t recall her ever using swear words, but she could make you understand she was upset with just a look. After 40 years away from our home state I’ve really lost any local colloquialisms from the Mid West where I grew up: A) Because the people in New York State or in Texas wouldn’t understand what I was saying, and having to explain just takes the immediacy of using a word or phrase that everyone around you would normally just understand and go with the flow of the conversation. And B) I got enough ribbing I learned quickly to just drop the usage. Being from the Mid West, got me the oddest responses in two different parts of NYS. When we lived upstate of NYC I worked with a lot of people who had moved to that bedroom community previously from Queens, The Bronx, etc. Because I enunciated my words and spoke (they thought so) slowly, they dubbed me The Professor. I had to ask why of course, and it was due to the above explanation. Kind of embarrassing. It wasn’t a compliment. But then I also had to ask them what they were saying quite often.

    When we would call home on the weekends (remember the days when you could only afford long distance during certain hours of the evening or the weekends?) I’d hear friends or family use a phrase I’d all but forgotten. Like my sister wrapping up the conversation by saying ‘Well, I gotta go feed these honyocks.’ My mother and grandmother used that term and I’d forgotten it!

    After twenty years in NYS we spent the next eighteen in Texas. I guessed I hadn’t dropped ALL of my Mid Western-ness. They looked at me weirdly when I picked up ‘y’all’ which is such a great word, like it didn’t sound right coming out of my mouth.

    Frankly, after leaving home the first time I picked up a lot of swear words. In TX I worked in a Pediatrician’s office and obviously could not swear there. I got inventive instead of losing my job. I said a lot of; Sugar! Son of a biscuit! God Bless America! I had to change at home too or I’d never be able to maintain the habit. Back in the Mid West now, I still say ‘Yes, Sir, yes Ma’am’ and get a lot of ‘wha..?’ That one is never gonna go away.

    I think the exposure to television, movies, the internet, has equalized the whole country somewhat, language wise. What I hear living here now is a lot of pop culture which leaves me going ‘wha..?’ because I’m so out of the loop there. I’m also way out of the loop because I read so much I find myself using terms from the genres I read the most which is Regency Romance or Historical Fiction. I’ve just plain never fit in. Ha.

  11. My grandma used to call oatmeal “hoe hoe”. She made it with condensed milk and it was delicious, like dessert for breakfast. As an adult I asked my dad where it came from and it turns out it was just a brand of oatmeal, Jojo. I was hoping for a more interesting story. She also used to call pajamas winky winkies and that has always delighted me (and for which I do not require an interesting story because the fun of saying it is enough).

  12. Road carrots.

    Our daughter (who sadly passed away last year) was just learning colors and things that went with the colors. Apples were red, pears were green, etc.

    Driving along one day in the inevitable north-eastern Pennsylvania construction, she excitedly yelled out “Road carrots!” for the ubiquitous traffic cones.

    And that is what they will forever remain.

  13. “Fish Heads” brings back memories, although I never went to Penn State. I’d likely also move on to “I took a fish head out to see a movie, didn’t have to pay to get him in.” ;p

    My Mom had the spine-tingling triple “damn it”. If you got the triple “damn it”, it was time to “get your affairs in order”! LOL

    I love your Mom’s alternate life tale, Grace. That’s just too funny!
    I very much look forward to “Lady Violet Pays a Call”. 🙂 Although, I will take myself out of the running for an ARC. I thank you, though. I think it’s lovely that you send out ARCs to your commenters. 😀