The secret language of families. What’s yours?


My husband and I spent three years living in Scotland, during which time our first child was born. Hearing the news of my pregnancy at a work function, Craig’s boss confidently predicted that his wife would be thrilled to help out with babysitting, enthusiastically proclaiming that “Susie just loves babies!” I was pleased to hear it- Susie lived five houses away, had four children of her own, and with no family in the same hemisphere I clung to the idea of having someone experienced and local to call upon.

Only it never happened. Though friendly beforehand, once Declan was born Susie dropped off the face of the earth. She no longer returned my calls; she would scurry off in the opposite direction if she saw me coming down the street with the pram. No doubt she already had enough on her plate with her own young tribe, and it wasn’t as if she’d personally offered her services anyway. Nonetheless, soon afterwards whenever my husband heard someone make any definitive pronouncement he thought was a bit dodgy he took to saying “Yes, and Susie just loves babies,” complete with Scottish brogue. It was one of own little pieces of conjugal humour, one of those jokes that only you and your partner understand… or at least I thought so, until one day I overheard my son talking with a friend. “Mum said I could take the whole class to Dreamworld for my birthday,” pronounced Jacob confidently, to which Declan replied in a perfect burr “Yeah, and Susie just loves babies.”

Asking him afterwards, Declan admitted he had no idea who Susie was, nor, indeed, any personal knowledge of her opinion re infants. Nonetheless, he had picked up the phrase and used it correctly. It had entered our family lexicon.

The family lexicon is that collection of words, jokes or expressions that only you, your partner and your children understand; the sayings that are passed down from your own parents or grow up with your children. In many ways they’re a form of emotional shorthand. Like in-jokes or pet names between lovers, these shared lexicons bind us together. They make us a tribe, give us a language only used by members, only understood by those who belong. They are folk lore on a smaller scale.

Often elements of the lexicon start off as errors, then make their way into daily use. Soon after the birth of his first child, a friend complained to my husband that the baby was always crying. “We can’t make her stop,” he said in exasperation. “She carries on like a two-bob pork chop”. Obviously, fatigue and stress had led him to muddle his metaphors, but it came to be a phrase they used regularly to describe her bouts of colic. The son of my girlfriend Mags couldn’t pronounce the word “smart” when he was small, and used to tell his mother “You look fart Mummy” when she was dressed to go out. A decade later, looking fart remains an accolade in their household.

At school pick-up last week the toddler son of a friend waddled past us with his shorts pulled halfway up his chest. “Hey Mum,” yelled Declan, “Have a look at Charlie- he’s Pups O’Ra!” “No, he’s Harry Highpants,” responded Charlie’s brother, whilst another classmate, Ella, added that her dad would say Charlie was “doing an Alex Appleby”. All three children saw the same thing, but each had a different term for it, one peculiar to their own flesh and blood. And that’s the beauty of the family lexicon: that it is personal, unique, and spoken fluently with the ones you love.

Kylie Ladd is a novelist, freelance writer and neuropsychologist. Her first novel, After The Fall, was recently released in the US , and her second novel, Last Summer, has just been published.


You can read some of Kylie’s other Mamamia posts here, here, here, here and  here.

What does your  family say that only you “get”?


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