In our household, song lyrics go awry.
My kids will happily inform you that the correct rendition of the Brady Bunch theme song declares, “the youngest one ate squirrels” (“had curls” is so banal). The 90s hit, “Please Don’t Go” actually says, “Pizza Dough.” In Pat Benatar’s 80s smash single, she sings, “Love Is a Felony,” not “Love Is a Battlefield.”
My husband and I can’t chastise them for behavior they’ve clearly learned, from, ahem, us. As the years pass, the number of words we’ve invented, commandeered, and abused steadily rises. A cry of “Nanners!” in our house signals not a sudden craving for bananas, but rather exasperation that our dear cat — whose original name was Anna — has clawed the armchair again. “Friday Night Ninjas” isn’t a movie, but rather our practice of taking off the cats’ collars every Friday, allowing them one night to stalk about the house with wild abandon.
Then, of course, there are the seemingly random words and phrases that creep into everyday life. A “nair” is a person who nags others. “Beebee” is my daughter’s favorite blanket. “Tulgey Woods” is our backyard, “Breakfast and Books” is our morning tradition of read-alouds over breakfast, “Hardy Boys Mystery Theater” is our vacation tradition of reading mysteries at sunset, and the lean-to into which the kids duck on blustery days is “Fort Lamendron.”
We’ve joked about the family gibberish, which would raise the eyebrows of unsuspecting friends if we didn’t police ourselves during visits. We didn’t know until recently, however, that the phenomenon of an intra-family lexicon has been recorded, studied, and even named. Called a “familect,” it’s a well-known pattern among families — and, as it turns out, it has benefits.
The practice of personalizing language within a family strengthens the bonds between parents and children. It denotes a shared experience, and often unfolds in a spirit of creativity and mirth. When we play with words, we encourage our kids to do the same, and foster their own love of language. Words don’t belong sequestered on spelling tests and vocabulary flash cards; they’re meant to be squished, splooshed, and tossed about, tied in knots and spiraled into curlicues.
We glimpse some of the joy of familects when we read authors who play with words. No one has seen a jabberwocky, but we certainly relish imagining one in Through the Looking Glass. No one has ever grown a snozzcumber in an English garden, but we sure believe the B.F.G. when he promises they taste vile. We experience the same delight when we read of Winnie the Pooh’s heffalumps and woozles, the snickbuzzard’s hideous belly button in The Wingfeather Saga, and the marsh wiggles in Narnia. Zany words convey possibilities beyond the confines of order and language. They embrace the delicious idea that what seems unbelievable and ridiculous just might be true. That the most scrumdiddlyumptious stories point to something real.
That the Word really did take on flesh and dwell among us.
And so, friends, celebrate your own family’s zany language. Record it. Practice it. Make word play a feature in your household, one that grows as your children do, one woven into the fabric of the traditions and memories you all share. In the early years, that language will prompt kids to laugh and to experiment with words on their own. In their later years, it might remind them of the love of home — a love grounded in the true Word, the most magnificent Word, that gives life to the world.