Say What?

Flipping the cliche (“The family that does XXX together, stays together”) to look at things that long-standing families habitually do.


I’m getting the Look.  You know the one: the face loses expression, the entire body goes still.  From an adult, that unblinking stare would be rude and not a little unnerving.  From a kidlet, it’s more a sign of intense concentration, a holding pattern as they work out what to do next.  They use it whenever something in their world does not compute, which happens a lot when you’re a preschooler.

I get it most often in response to something I’ve said.  As I wait for this four-year-old’s next move in the game of conversation, I can almost hear her processing her options.  

I could pretend she didn’t say it.  From experience with other munchkins, I’d be surprised if this isn’t the leading contender.  Not a bad tactic: if you ignore It, It sometimes goes away.  But letting things slide isn’t yet in her repertoire: I’m guessing it may never be her strong suit.  Processing, processing.

I could ask if she’s stupid.  I’m pretty sure that’s one of the options under consideration, albeit maybe not phrased quite that baldly.  But even these days, out-and-out insulting someone so much bigger than you must be rejected as unwise.  Processing, processing.

I could ask her to say it again.  That’s likely in there too: rejected, I’m guessing, because she judges correctly that it will bring no joy.  She heard what I said, all right.  Processing, processing.

Whirr, click.  The processing is done.  She’s decided on her move.

Why do you call it a finner when it’s a fing-grrr?

Her articulation is phonetically perfect; her emphasis likewise perfect for the job at hand.  An otherwise apparently competent adult has mispronounced a simple word—finger—and she wants to know why. 

Did you hurt your finner?

She had come out from the back bedroom, holding up her hand in the universal gesture indicating a wounded paw.  My question was not entirely innocent: there being no baby-talk in her repertoire either, I wondered how she will react to mine.  I can hear the game commentators in the background: She shoots, she scores the Look.

But with her question—Why did you call it a finner when it’s a fing-grrr?—the puck is now back in my end.  I must somehow stickhandle my way out of what I’ve gotten myself into. 

Why did I call it a finner?

Layers of sub-text swirl around me.  The adult with the wounded paw makes light of their own injury—I hurt my finner!—acknowledging the pain, damn it, and asking for sympathy, while admitting that there is no grievous hurt.  The adult asking a peer, a teen or a child—Did you hurt your finner?—offers sympathy (half in fun, full in earnest) while inviting the other to make light of it. 

But beyond the finner, why play with baby-talk at all?  Why incorporate a child’s mispronunciations into adult usage?

In my parent’s home, the use of “bindy” survived a sister’s inexplicable (and long-since-abandoned) substitution of it for “basement”.  In my home, a “serviette” is a “fuzzy-wet”, even for adults who never knew the originator as a child.  These are word play: not jokes or puns or witticisms, true, but word play nonetheless.  Within a shared context, they succintly evoke and extend a sense of connection. 

Like the baby accepting as funny any strange noise repeated often enough, so do we accept repeated silliness as a reminder of past play and as an invitation to play yet again.  Baby-talk is on the same continuum as repeating punchlines of corny jokes at the apropos moment; it’s in the same genre as the shared look of silent appreciation when someone does something silly that has us remembering when.

Why did you call it a finner when it’s a fing-grrr?  Her question still hangs between us.

Well, I was just playing.

She’s not buying It.  This time, she chooses to let It go and turns away, looking for a more compatible partner.  What is it Stephen Covey said?  You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into.

Or played your way into, as the case may be.  But that’s all right.  We’ll have other opportunities.  Whether everyone appreciates it all the time or not, the family that stays together, plays together.

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8 Comments

Filed under Language and Communication

8 Responses to Say What?

  1. Jim taylor

    When my mother was a child, her rather demanding father told her that she couldn’t have any bacon that day unless she could spell “bacon.” She really wanted that bacon. So she said, “B…A… Hmmm…Hmmm…Hmmm” Until she died, in our family, bacon was “B-A-hmm-hmm-hmm.” Unfortunately, the story and the memory died with her. We haven’t called bacon anything but bacon for over 40 years now.
    JIm

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Hmm. Do you ever wonder why no one has stories like this about their mothers? I suspect we ‘demand’ in other ways. But with just a slight change, this sounds taylor-made (sorry) (but not very) for a bacon commercial: B-A-mmm-mmm-mmm! You could start a trend, in honour of your mother.

  2. Margaret Carr

    When my second daughter was little she had trouble with a lot of words so Chocolate Sauce became : Choca Haw. We all still call this sauce choca haw.
    Also when her Uncle told her to put on her shoes and get ready to go to the Zoo she asked:” How can I put on my hoos when I can’t find my hocks?” She is now 54 and everyone still remembers. Blessings Margaret

    • Isabel Gibson

      Margaret – Hoos and hocks – gotta love it! It makes you wonder how much of the “standard” language we take for granted is the result of some kid’s inability to say the word “right”. I wonder if linguists have ever looked into that… I’ve read that we get “orange” from the Spanish word (originally Arabic, I believe) “naranja”. It came into English as (more or less) “a narange” and gradually the “n” moved left one space. Et voila – “an orange”!

  3. Kate

    Sigh, so serious sometimes….
    Xo
    K

  4. Did you know Nebraska was originally Nebrasktha — the Indian word,
    unlisp-ed for white-man’s usage. It meant “broad water” or “flat water” (the Platte River).

    My sister had a word — “goosytass” — and she could not explain it. For what seemed years, she would say it and get so mad that we didn’t understand her. Then, one day during a cartoon we were all watching, Walt Disney’s Goofy came on the screen. She yelled “Goosytass!” Goofy, and “tass” was, to her “stuff”. Ah! Goofy Stuff. Goosytass for her was anything she found funny. John and I use it still. It brings my sister so close it hurts. She is almost 65 and still childlike — makes me laugh like nobody else.

    Happy families have lots of these silly words said in childhood or adulthood, for what are we for but to bring amusement to each other?

    That 4-year-old sounds too serious by half for her age. I am already sad for her adult self.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – I did not know that about Nebrathka – maybe a Barthelonan had corrupted the Indian usage… I don’t know if we’re “for” bringing amusement to each other, but we seem to do a lot of it, at least on our good days. One of my nieces started calling me “ee-ant”, as opposed to “auntie” overnight and persisted in this for months. Then, one day, it was just gone.