What ‘family words’ say about us

The rich lexicon of words, phrases and in-jokes we develop within our families serve a more crucial function than you might think
July 19, 2023

I don’t know why the Queen named her corgis Susan, Dookie and Pickles, but I do know why the current vice chancellor of Oxford named her dog Geoffrey Biscuit. It was after her young son’s mispronunciation of “digestive biscuit”, which had become a family word.

Family words, or familects, are “in words” not known to others. They mirror the natural process of creating new words, especially slang, and affirming community by forming an “in group” and “out group”. A friend’s family whispers “guzunder” when someone gives them an unwanted gift; they say “Elizabeth” when telling someone they have food in their teeth; “Karl” is nasal snot, while “Karl on holiday” is when the booger transfers across their face.

We start creating words in childhood and continue as we grow up. There’s a reason people call them “neologasms”: this creation is a fun and pleasurable process. But family words do more than entertain; they fulfil a powerful social function of belonging. They fill gaps in our lexicon (at least temporarily), providing linguistic structures that children need as they develop language and gain cognitive skills.

The boundary between family language and general parlance is not always clear. When I first worked as an editor on the Oxford English Dictionary, I was keen to impress the chief editor. I had been spending a couple of years on the letter P, and when I got to the word pig, I noticed it lacked the nasal snot sense, as in “you have a pig on your nose”. I pointed out the omission, but my boss had never heard of it. Perhaps it was an Australianism? If I could find enough examples in published sources, he told me, we could put it in the dictionary. I scoured novels and newspapers for an example. Nothing. Exasperated, I finally rang my mother in Sydney who revealed that pig was not for public consumption, let alone the OED—it was a family word!

Sometimes, though, familects do make it into the dictionary: in the OED you’ll find Jane Austen’s family word for an afternoon snack, noonshine, even though no one else has used it since 1808.

If there were a prize for the best family words, it would go to the aristocratic Mitford sisters, who created their own language called Boudledidge. For them, “cake” was not only a baked good but also the Queen Mother. They gave the name to her after they were at a wedding at which she was also a guest. When it was announced that the bride and groom would cut the cake, the Queen Mother exclaimed, “Oh, the cake!” as though she had never seen it happen before.