Family Language

The words that make a house a home


When asked how he felt about being appointed Vice-President of Britain’s Board of Trade in 1841, William Gladstone responded, “Bathing feel.” Say what? Bathing feel turned out to be an expression used by members of his wife’s family to describe an antsy sense of anticipation when undertaking a formidable task, much like a baby about to be plunged into bath water.

The family of Mrs. Gladstone, Catherine Glynne, had so many idiosyncratic words and expressions like this that in 1851, Lord Lyttleton—the husband of Catherine’s sister Mary—published a glossary of “Glynnese.” This compilation included terms such as grubuous for looking indisposed, twarly for peevishness, and niobe for being in a tearful state. In Glynnese, rubbish worth keeping was called hydra, useless refuse groutle. Among themselves, the Glynnes were also early users of take (as in “my take on that”) and beyond as an intensifier (“beyond stupidissimo,” another Glynnism).

The Glynnes weren’t the only English family of their time who had an extensive private vocabulary. So did the family of author Maurice Baring (1874–1945), whose invented words—known as Baringese—included dewdrop for a compliment, and Molly Corkering for a hasty, superficial housecleaning (because a housekeeper of theirs named Molly Corker tended to straighten up by shoving things beneath the sofa).

The sociologist Robert Merton once observed that, in addition to being a tool of communication, family languages such as Glynnese and Baringese are “used as a symbol of unquestioned membership and helped mark off the boundaries of the group.” This surprisingly common practice is hardly limited to 19th-century English aristocrats. Buckminster Fuller’s family used lots of words of their own coinage, including sunsight and sunclipse instead of sunrise and sunset. These terms did not improve on the ones they replaced, but did celebrate the Fullers’ solidarity.

Most families create at least a few words and phrases that mean much to them but little to outsiders. This can be as simple as what one family calls ching ching for a toast; our son David dubbed it a click. Since there is no word for the solid parts of soup (vegetables, noodles, rice, etc.) my mother coined one: gumyak. “Does everyone have enough gumyak?” she’d ask while ladling soup from a pot into the bowls of her husband and four children.

For a long time I assumed that gumyak was one among the many Yiddishisms used by my mother, but when I looked could find it in no Yiddish dictionary. Linguist Seth Lerer had a similar experience. Mingled with true Yiddishims in his parents’ vocabulary were neo-Yiddish words of their own invention such as lachlat, for a peacoat-poncho combo, and konditterei, a neo-Yiddish term that tapped Italian too to describe self-important café habitués. Only when he couldn’t find such terms in any dictionary did Lerer realize his parents had probably made them up.

Although most such terms are never used outside their family of origin, a private word used by the Mullanys of Fairfield, Connecticut, became the accepted term for a commercial product. That would be the Mullanys of Fairfield, Connecticut. In 1933, when he was 12, David Mullany bragged incessantly about his ability to “whiff,” or strike out, his friends when they played stickball with a plastic golf ball. The Mullany family soon began calling this their son’s “whiffle” ball. When David Mullany, Sr., developed a baseball-sized version of his son’s plastic ball, he simply dropped the “h” and capitalized the “w” to create its brand name: Wiffle.

Not just families but couples have words of their own, ones that can have great personal resonance. The essayist E. B. White said that what first attracted him to his wife-to-be Katharine was the fact that she considered tooth twine an improvement on “dental floss.” So did he. As White later observed, “I knew that a girl who called dental floss ‘tooth twine’ was the girl for me.”

In another case, when he thinks his wife is trying to manipulate him like a whale in training at Sea World, one husband says she’s trying to Shamu him. Closer to home, after more than half-a-century together, my wife and I call the many occasions when we have the same thought simultaneously fifty-one moments, or simply fifty-ones. Such terms seldom show up in any dictionary, of course. How could they? Most are based on shared history and celebrate that history.

As Richard Dawkins discovered to his dismay, few private words that grow out of shared history make sense or seem useful to anyone who hasn’t shared the experience. In his 2013 memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, the biologist noted that he and his wife called petty, rule-bound bureaucrats dundridges (after a character in a 1975 novel). Since he wanted the Oxford English Dictionary to adopt this neologism, Dawkins asked readers to “Please use dundridge and give it currency.” The biologist then tweeted, “‘Dundridge’ is a coining I am trying to introduce into English. It means a petty, bossy, bureaucratic little rule-hound.” When a jar of honey in his luggage was confiscated by an airport security inspector, Dawkins raged in tweets about “rule-bound dundridges.” But this coinage had little resonance outside the Dawkins’s home, and was ridiculed to death on the Internet.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ralph Keyes is the author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Coined Words, which has just been published.


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