Language is culture. Yogurt is also culture. Beyond that they have nothing in common. It’s language – certainly not yogurt – that binds us. Without language, we would have no community.
Language is also how we exclude others from our community, which should be the slogan on the Quebec licence plate.
Language breaks us down into ever smaller communities. Starting with English, we’re broken down first by accents and then by dialects. A Canadian, for instance, would say “zed.” An American would say it wrong.
Within Canada, each region has its exclusive vocabulary. All Canadians draw pogey, but because I’m from the Maritimes I would do so while wasting my day sitting on the chesterfield.
This Maritime language community is broken down by provinces, then by towns, where nicknames for certain landmarks are known only by the locals. If I still lived in my hometown, I might expect a call from an old friend saying, “Get off the chesterfield, buddy. My pogey check came in, I got a two-four of Schooner at the Liquor Commission, and we’re goin’ on a tear down on the Bunny Trail!” You’d have to be from my town to know that the Bunny Trail was an undeveloped right-of-way where young people would gather to drink… pop. (Be cool, guys, my mom might be reading this!)
Sadly, the universality of media culture is homogenizing language, causing regionalisms and even localisms to go the way of giving people the bumps on their birthday – which I realize isn’t language but is a really weird thing you don’t do that much anymore in Quebec.
Thankfully, there’s one community of language that will forever be immune to outside influences, the smallest, most idiosyncratic circle of all: the family unit. Each family has its own vocabulary, an exclusive code that can be cracked by only an intimate few.
For example, when I was growing up, my parents had a hammock that hung on a metal frame. One day, my mother mentioned something about assembling “the whole kit and caboodle.” My nephew heard this, and from that day the hammock became known as “the caboodle.”
It’s as easy as that. And the great thing is it sticks. Here are a few from the Murray-Bishop household that have stood the test of time:
Farfle: to putter around the house in a scattered, ineffective way, often instead of taking care of matters of greater concern. “Where’s Dad? His court appearance is in 20 minutes.” “He’s farfling upstairs.”
Floppy cheese: processed cheese slice. “Do you want floppy cheese on your hamburger?” “That stuff’s toxic!” “Okay, do you want toxic cheese on your hamburger?”
Bubbly: Soft drink, soda pop, not to be confused with champagne; often a source of misunderstanding during sleepovers: “Abby, dear, would you like something to drink?” “Can I have some bubbly?” “…..”
Ho Taki: Homemade chili oil, the recipe for which (like the word) was imported into our family circle from our friends Greg and Laurie, who lifted it from a Vancouver restaurant of the same name. Meaning unknown, but just in case it means “extra spit” don’t go asking for it at a restaurant.
Jeebees: Pyjamas. If you have a morbid fear of pyjamas, this would be known as the heebie jeebees.
Cheese curtains: Another name for cheese curds, aka “cheese turds.”
Boog rag: Soiled facial tissue. “Pick those boog rags up off the floor before the beast eats them.”
The Beast: That’s the dog – just to clarify.
Do you call windshield washer “push-push”? When it’s raining, do you put on “puddle boots”? Was the rear-facing seat in your old station wagon known as “the best back seat”? Does anyone besides my wife know what a “flikka” is? Do you have a house name for yogurt? What are the words that keep your family tight and your acquaintances confounded? Post your comments below.