If you’re thinking, “My baby likes baby food, thank you, not some cutesy brunch-like blend of supper and lunch,” hold that thought. “Slunch” is a cutesy blend, but it’s not food-related. This mix of “slouch,” “slump” and “hunch” was coined by parents Stephanie Hawkins and Ian Finseth and perfected by their baby Audrey, whose posture is a work-in-progress.
You likely haven’t heard of slunching because “slunch” is a family word: a private term invented and used by only a few people – usually folks who call each others things like Mommy, Daddy, Honey and Sweetie. Unlike the secrets of Aunt Petunia’s real hair color or why Cousin Billy fled to the Samoan islands, family words are private matters that are amusing, neato and well worth sharing.
The genre of family words has been discussed by word-watchers since at least 1962, when the linguistics journal American Speech published an article by Allen Walker Read on the subject, but the current collector laureate of the genre is Paul Dickson, whose Family Words: A Dictionary of the Secret Language of Families was updated and republished by Marion St. Press in 2007. (Full-ish disclosure: I have a book coming out from the same publisher, but I’m only minimally corrupt, swear to Zeus).
The family words collected by Dickson come in almost every category and subject, but it’s not a surprise that many are kid-centric, since families and children are highly correlated. Some Brits came up with “bed wobbler” to describe a bedtime story that inspires mattress-quaking laughter. One family redubbed that ever-present childhood hazard, the boo-boo, as a “ninny-nanny-noo-noo,” and another calls plastic pants put over a diaper “crucials.”
Dogs are a part of the family, and sometimes they demand new words too. Dickson describes how the Klages, an Ontario family, started saying they had to “Lawrence the dog,” a slice of vagueness with a simple meaning – walk the dog. It seems their pooch became unmanageably excited when he heard the word “walk,” so a code word was needed, which they named in honor of Lawrence Welk for (I presume) his walk-sounding name.
The need to disguise information is a frequent theme in Dickson’s book. A creative, cryptic expression like “Saturday is longer than Sunday” may sound like a Zen-like paradox or a commentary on weekend binge drinking, but it’s actually a Texan’s clandestine way of telling a woman her slip is showing. Another family disguised sex with the word “connecting” – as in, “Mommy and daddy need to connect now; time for a video.” One family’s aunt was known for repeating her stories, so she instructed her nephews and nieces to let her know mid-rerun by shouting out “Twins!”
Not all family words are so subtle. The only ones I can remember using came through non-family sources. When I was a counselor at a summer camp for disabled and disadvantaged kids, one of my campers used to say, “I feel sick. I’m going to oopschlop,” if he thought he was going to hurl. That word spread amongst the counselors, until one day another camper dropped a catastrophic, life-changing, weapons-grade load in the pool, an event that would live in infamy but spawn another new word: “poopschlop.”
In the camp community, where vile bodily functions were as common as singing and boating, “oopschlop” and “poopschlop” caught on. They added welcome humor to some gross situations. That’s the beauty of family words. Their usefulness and humor make even the icky parts of living together easier to take.
Does your family have any unique words? Leave them below in comments.