Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Secret Language of Families

I was in college when Patty Hearst was kidnapped - she and I were about the same age. I vividly remember an opinion piece in a newspaper commenting on the fact that when she had a chance to communicate with her family Hearst had no secret family phrases to use to indicate she was okay or not okay. The writer seemed to think that this indicated an impoverished family life among the Hearsts. At the time I thought that the writer was being absurd - my family didn't have any private language, any unique and secret phrases with which to communicate to each other, and my family life was just fine.  

I realized many years later that I was wrong. My assessment that my family was "just fine" may have glossed over many issues, and my family did have its own secret language. First, my mother taught us to use many expressions and phrases from her rural Virginia childhood that were not known to the families around us. If we asked a question about something that she thought was none of our business, she told us it was a "larose". We would respond "What's a larose?" and my mother would reply "Laroses catch meddlers make fiddlers bite."   Also my brothers and I created extensive store of idiosyncratic phrases and terms we used among ourselves. 

One of the first things that I noticed about both of my husbands' families was the language quirks and unique phrases that they used. Often trivial things like everyone in Russell's family referring to the local grocery chain as the "Giant Beagle" rather than "Giant Eagle" that helped build a secret family language code that bolstered family cohesion, or John's family using phrases like "round by Rheinhart's" (Rheinhart's was a store in a remote area of Greene County, TN where John grew up) to indicate going out of one's way.  

In the nearly 25 years that John and I have been together as a couple, we have developed our own family language. Each of us has brought things from our own childhood - John understands the "larose" call and response pattern, and when I have to take a round about route I call it going "round by Rheinhart's".  We've also built a huge store of unique words and phrases out of our own experience as a couple. 

Some of these come from absurd things said or done by our students. John had student many years ago who persistently misspelled abdominal crunches as "churches", so we both now refer to that exercise activity as doing churches. My first year at Southeast, I had a student from Seco - a very small town I drove past every day on the way to work - who turned a class essay into a misogynist rant against the young ladies of his town who wore dresses that were so scanty as "might as well have not bothered to wear".  From that day forward, John and I refer to any dress that leaves a lot of bare skin as a "Seco dress". 

Early in our relationship John and I were talking about accents, and how neither of us grew up speaking a "standard" English dialect.  We were joked about whether anyone in real life grew up speaking like network newscasters speak, and I said: "yeah, some guys I know who grew up in Columbus, Ohio talk like that!"  From that moment on we started calling that bland newscaster accent "Columbian" in contrast to "English" which John swears is only spoken by folks in northeast Tennessee (where he's from) or neighboring southwest Virginia (where my dad is from). 

I don't know if this habit of coining unique words and phrases used only within the family is universal, but it is certainly quite common. 

June 19, 2018

I'm so excited.  I finally found several references to my mother's favorite phrase to deflect our inquiries as children: "larovers to catch medlers" and "layovers for meddlers"  are varients of what my mother would say.
 I'd never found anything before because I always included her full phrase which included "make fiddlers bite." But for once I thought, let's just look for the initial phrase and viola - many articles appeared! 

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