My friend Dan Weinstein and I went to grad school together, and we’re both dictionary-licking, English-major, word-nuts. Dan – now an Associate Professor of English at Dakota State University – often emails me with tales of his son Koan’s verbal adventures. Here’s an old one:
You’ll never guess what Koan said today. We were in the bathroom, after his bath, and he was toweling his head. Suddenly he dropped the towel.
“Oh,” I said. “You dropped your towel.”
“Drop towel,” Koan said. “Sorry, towel.”
Then he said something that really blew me away. Still standing naked in the bathroom, the kid looks me in the eye and says, as calmly and distinctly as you please, “Myself, Koan.”
A later story involved a sidewalk boo-boo and the thoughtful words “Sorry, knee.” In Zen Buddhism, a koan is a meditation tool, an unanswerable question like “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”, and this boy was definitely living up to his Yoda-esque name with his enlightening one-liners. In addition to the hilarious apologies, Koey made some memorable associations, as described by Dan: “When he pooped in the bathtub last night, he had no idea what to call what came out of him, so estranged is my diaper-wearing son from his own excrement. Instead of crying, ‘Poop!’, he exclaimed, rather oddly, yet quite reasonably, ‘Brown shoe!'”
At some point, Dan sent the following story: “Koan has decided that it’s funny to say,’More bookie,’ after the manner of Ed McMahon announcing, ‘Here’s Johnny.’ ‘More bookie,’ is Koan’s phrase for ‘More milk from Mommy’s wonderful dispensers.’ He’s milking this two-word routine for all it’s worth.” That Mommy is Jess Nathanson – co-editor with Laura Tuley of the forthcoming Mother Knows Best: Talking Back to the “Experts” – who remembers the origin of “bookie”: “Koan must have been less than a year old, because what happened was that I’d say ‘milky’ – thinking that would, as he got older, be socially acceptable in a way that asking for ‘breast’ or ‘mommy milk’ or ‘nurse’ would not. But he couldn’t quite say ‘milky,’ so he said ‘bookie.'”
Though I find Koey – and the word “bookie” – singularly adorable, there isn’t anything unique about kids making up their own terms for breastfeeding. It’s a small-but-amusing area of language that might surprise anyone who doesn’t realize that toddler breastfeeding is healthy and common.
For a huge assortment of bookie-like words, check the dictionary at Jane’s Breastfeeding Resources, where mothers contributed such memorable names as “noopy sip mama,” “naaacks” (a clipped and elongated form of “snacks”), “gluggie,” and “eating from the chest.” Breastfeeding supporter and word-collector Jane Neesam of Hertfordshire, England knows her topic well: “Our third and youngest daughter (now eight and definitely not feeding anymore!) was the original inspiration; she called feeding ‘bucky.’ I’m not sure how this developed; it could have been her own word for ‘milky,’ which I think I’d been using, and when she started to speak at around twelve months, it was ‘bucky.’ Of course we loved the name so much the whole family continued to use it in that context, and we still do when we see other babies feeding . . . or lambs, piglets, meercats, etc. Our second daughter referred to it as ‘tea.’ Again, I’m not sure why!”
Many of the names collected by Neesam are made by reduplication, a word-making process that produces rhymes (“higgledy-piggledy,” “namby-pamby”) and non-rhymes (“flippy-floppy,” “mish-mash”), as well as whole-word repetition (“boom-boom,” “doo-doo,” “night-night,” “no-no,” “nyah-nyah,” “kootchy-kootchy-koo”). Reduplication and little kids go together like a poo-poo in the potty-wotty: on Jane’s list, the reduplicative terms for breastfeeding include “baa-baa,” “boob boob nursey nursey,” “dap-dap,” “juice-juice,” “mimmi blim blims,” “nee-nee-naw-nees,” “num-nums,” and “tay-yay.” Such words come easily to toddlers, and they may prove reassuring to parents as well. Neil Cunningham – a Biocontrol Specialist in Minneapolis whose daughter Luna used “nurse nurse” – thinks that “‘Nurse’ or ‘nursing’ sounded too formal or something . . . ‘nurse nurse’ kind of softens the asking.”
Though reduplication dominates, Neesam’s list is a tour through many types of word-making. The same blending process that gave us “Brangelina” and “puggle” creates “bilk” (self-explanatory) and “beepy” (a mix of “booby” and “sleep”). A few terms – “Bert and Ernie” and “Milky and Tilky” – go the name-the-boobs route. And it’s no shock that many terms are synonymous with Mom herself: “Mama milk,” “Mammas,” “Mamoos,” “Mommy juice,” “Mummy milk,” “mum-mum boo-boos,” “mum-mums.”
And the winner for most creative word goes to home-schooling mom Kelley Francis, whose son first used “booba” for nursing. Through some hard-to-trace collaboration between mother, son, father, and Homer Simpson – coiner Through some hard-to-trace collaboration between mother, son, father, and Homer Simpson – coiner of “saxamaphone” – “booba” grew into “boobamaphone.”of “saxamaphone” – “booba” grew into “boobamaphone.” Of the Simpsons influence, Francis says, “In one part of the episode, ‘saxamaphone’ is actually said to Beethoven’s Fifth, which is how we often say ‘boobamaphone.’ Granted, we also say it as a race car announcer might, while our nurslings are held by my husband and revving up (complete with car sound effects) for the nursing race.”
Whatever the sound, sound effects or origin of a toddler’s breastfeeding name, each word is an absolutely distinct part of that kid’s world. Autumn Cunningham – a birth doula and childbirth mentor – feels that “there is something sacred about the words,” maybe because “they aren’t some generic product or brand name.” She says the names “are highly personal and unique . . . and appropriate for the intimacy that is breastfeeding.”
In some cases, that intimate language may evolve, and in the Koey household, bookie isn’t just for breastfeeding. According to Dad Dan, “bookie” shifted in meaning to mean breasts: “Sometimes we’d pass a nude female figure – a drawing, a painting, a statue – and he’d say, ‘Look, that woman has bookies’ by way of art criticism.” This led to some important distinctions in the field of hugging. Jess clarifies: “As (Koey) got older and I weaned him, he would say that he wanted to snuggle with me, specifically, ‘snuggle with bookies!’ Or ‘hug with bookies!’ Which means that he wants a hug with his head against my chest.”
Hug with bookies? Move over, burger with fries.