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06/04/2006 - 9:31 a.m.

THE FAMILY DICTIONARY

Twice this week, I have heard about private "family" language: once in a complaint from Kat and once in an entry from Bev. Because I am deeply concerned with fashion and I believe I've spotted a trend (which explains, perhaps, why I am never quite in step with fashion), I've been thinking about our "family" language and discovered it is amazing that people understand us most of the time. I think we need a family dictionary.

Kat, of course, being the Kat she is, was complaining about how they do not understand us. She asked me the origin of the use of the word "zapper" for the TV remote. Apparently, until she arrived at college, she did not know that most people call that thing that I never get to drive a "remote." Foolish child that she is, she looked to me for enlightenment. I know the term "zapper" predates the children and I would never come up with such a weird term (oh, please be quiet, Dad!) so all I could tell her that, as long as I remember, her father has called it a "zapper." While I have some sense of the inner workings of the toddler mind on the issue of language, I have little sense of the workings of her father's brain—even though the family joke is that he and I share one. I do believe there is some sort of screen in the brain that prevents wives, even wives that share a brain, from accessing certain male-only, highly privileged information.

But most of the "family" language stems from toddlers or shared jokes. Thanks to Day, I can be very precise, more precise than ordinary English allows, when looking for a way to the second floor at the mall—or a way down from the first floor. Ordinary English only allows for escalators. Day, who loved riding them, was far more precise. Thanks to Day, I look for either the "upscalator" or the "downscalator."

It was also Day, fighting off attacks as a younger child must, who came up with the family answer to the charge of failing to use one's brains. When accused of not using one's brains or commonsense, the retort around here is clear. Look the accuser straight in the eye and tell him (because accusers must be hims as we women in the household would never attack each other and sisters just don't do such things, right?) "I have sense in my piggy bank." The answer arises from the time FogieKnight was kidding Kat and told her she was "five and no sense." Kat, sensing an opportunity, turned to Day and said that Day was "two and no sense." Day replied and the rest was family history.

Kat, of course, added to the "family" language. It was Kat who had the original blankie (and still does.) My grandmother had knitted Kat a green and yellow striped baby afghan that Kat loved and loves. (When that girl gives her heart, it usually lasts a long time.) Kat dubbed it "bebe." While, unlike Bev's son, Kat's is still too big to put in a pocket. Kat's bebe accompanies her to college and camp. Day has a bebe of her own but she has stored it away.

Kat also was the child who intoned the family phrase of resignation (although I've heard other people use this one.) One day, when she was three, she did not want to go to day care. "I don't want to go," she told me. I was not particularly sympathetic that morning, although I do not remember why. (And no, it was not because I was not generally sympathetic to my child---or if it was, I'll deny it.) "Tough," I told her (echoing what was known as my mother's five-letter word.) Kat just sighed and walked in, stating, "First you suffer, then you die."

Then there are the ones that come from television shows, usually "Monty Python's Flying Circus," although I have no idea why that show produced them. When you panic in this household, you do not say, "I panicked" or "Help" or "This is really hard." What you say is "albatross." I barely remember the skit but I remember that one of the fake-ladies on the show as doing something and said, "Albatross." The other fake-lady looked at her and asked, "Albatross?" The first responded, "I panicked."

And so, you can come to my house, use my zapper, look at bebes, and yell "albatross" at times of stress, and debate whether you have sense in your piggybank but you cannot use the upscalator or the downscalor because I live in a ranch house and don't have them. But if you want to understand us, you may need the family dictionary.

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