Afterthoughts: Mother Tongue

Every home has its own vernacular.

Photo: Linny Morris

When I was growing up, I thought Styrofoam packing peanuts were called “moon worms.” I figured everyone said, “home again, home again, jiggedy jog,” when they pulled into the driveway. I believed “frak” was a legitimate swear word.

As I got older, I was startled to discover other humans didn’t share these verbal tics. They were part, it turned out, of a dialect spoken only by a small tribe, a tribe whose native speakers all had the last name Drury.

Each of us grows up with gibberish words or quirky expressions unique to our upbringing. My boss, for example, remembers his father calling ice cream “gedunk.” He had no idea why, until he recently found out gedunk is slang for a snack bar on a ship, and realized his father’s Navy service was reflected in the term he’d used with his family.

As an adult, I discovered “frak” was a real swear word, but in an imaginary place—it was used by characters on the 1970s TV series Battlestar Galactica. When I watched the new version of the series, they used the same term and a light bulb went off: Huh, I thought, my dad must have watched that show in 1978.

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

Words aren’t just taught to us by our parents; they are also a way we get taught about our parents. We slowly unspool these linguistic mysteries, passed down like sauce-splashed recipe cards.

A family’s universal language, its lingua ohana, contains evidence of its diaspora, with other languages thrown into the vocabulary mix. A smattering of Yiddish. The rhythms of Mandarin. Perhaps an expression nailing something unnamable in English—like the German gemütlichkeit. (That’s when you are inside and cozy; outside a storm is raging and you get a little thrill of pleasure being this close to danger.)

You’ll also find accents of babyhood, little scraps of words simply too cute to stop using. For example, our daughter used to eat “picky ballow,” and now that she’s older and calls her sandwich spread “peanut butter,” I cannot bear to call it by its proper name. It’s picky ballow and it will always be picky ballow, my verbal memento of a ponytail-topped toddler. 

Occasionally a family member will come up with an entirely new term, a word that becomes so indispensable, it’s unfathomable that it didn’t exist before. “Klutz bombs,” a current Wagnerism, are disasters waiting to happen, like a shoe left in the middle of a darkened hallway. Go on, you can use klutz bomb. We don’t mind.

I just learned a word that sounds made up, but isn’t: eruv. Orthodox Jews use it to describe a wire, mounted on poles, that surrounds a public space and turns it into a private space. These symbolic walls allow them to do certain activities, such as carrying small children, on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited.

A family’s language is its eruv. It ties us together, steering us on a path from the sacred to the mundane and back again. Like a translucent, nearly invisible string above our heads, it guides us as we venture outside, whispering, “This is where you belong.”

For more of Wagner’s writing, see her “Guilty Pleasures” blog at