My dad’s family, the Browns, were perhaps what you’d call “normal” at first glance. My grandfather, Harold Lyle Brown, was a steady, mostly soft-spoken man with a predominantly British and Irish background. My grandma, Lois Begert, was equal parts Swiss and German and descended mostly from peace-loving Mennonites. I was hard pressed to find any scandals in either of their immediate backgrounds. No slave owners, no murders, no horse thieves. They both came from steady, peaceful folk who kept to themselves and didn’t rock the boat unless they had to. Though words like “normal” and “down to earth” could, most definitely, apply to my grandparents, the Browns, there was also an underlying current of humor and silliness to them that almost worked as the supporting beams to their foundation. Still waters run quirky? For instance, my dad and his sister, ten years apart but best friends, couldn’t look at each other without bursting into giggles. This was as adults – my 40 year old dad and my 30 year old aunt snorting and snickering to each other in a corner was not an unusual sight.
My aunt’s daughter, my cousin Kelly, and I grew up much the same way. One of my favorite family photos is Kelly and I, obviously in the middle of performing some “show” (this term I use loosely – my mom later described these shows as 20 minute long events of Kelly and I just giggling at each other with maybe a scene acted out here and there while our dutiful audience wondered how much longer it could possibly last). We are about nine years old, side by side facing the camera with our arms swinging and our legs looking like we are in the middle of marching. We are staring at each other with enormous grins on our faces, incredibly pleased with ourselves, probably in the midst of one of the giggle sessions that my mom described. My dad is sitting in the background on the couch, our audience, turning to someone (probably my aunt) off camera and making a face that I can only describe as horrified laughter, his eyes are popped out and his mouth is stretched across the length of his face. I love this photo, not only because it makes me laugh every time I see it, but because I think it captures perfectly the silliness my cousin and I obviously inherited from those Browns.
Aside from the many giggle sessions, this quirkiness was mostly evident in the family vocabulary. I grew up thinking that the Browns had a language that they created all on their own. Certain words popped up often, whimsical and fun words that made you giggle a little when saying them, that I never heard elsewhere and that outsiders reacted to with confusion when I said them. I was shocked to learn as an adult that most of these words were not original or exclusive to my family.
Some of our appropriated family favorites are as follows:
Cattywhompus – Awry or crooked. One of my paternal Grandma’s favorite words. Catawhompus or Catty-Corner comes from the English word Cater, meaning “to move diagonally,” which, in turn, came from the French word “quatre,” meaning four-cornered.
Bumbershoot (or Bumber, for short) – An umbrella. Merriam-Webster says, “‘Bumbershoot’ is a predominantly American nickname, one that has been recorded as a whimsical, slightly irreverent handle for umbrellas since the late 1890s. As with most slang terms, the origins of “bumbershoot” are a bit foggy, but it appears that the “bumber” is a modification of the “umbr-” in “umbrella” and the “shoot” is an alteration of the “-chute” in ‘parachute’” This is probably the Brown-ism that I use the most. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve used the word Umbrella.
Smacker – A loud kiss (or just a kiss, in terms of how my family used it) . I have not been able to find much in the way of an origin of the word, however it does appear to be either British or American. “That was a good smacker,” was one of the last things my grandfather said to me before he passed away.
Biffy- The toilet. This one I was sure my parents made up. Nope. Dictionary.com states that it is “chiefly upper midwest and Canadian slang,” and Wikipedia describes it as “A term for an outhouse (Bathroom In Forest For You).” – which is plain brilliant.
…and, finally, the one word that I have found that appears to belong solely to my family, that pops up in no google searches with that definition, and that we may (perhaps?) claim in its entirety:
Dunders- Underwear. Our claim to fame. You heard it here first, folks! I use this one often, mostly in reference to the kids, “Put away your clean dunders!” My husband is mostly used to it by now (he appreciates a quirky word when he hears one).
While I don’t know exactly how these words ended up in the family vocabulary, I do know that it made for a fun upbringing and an appreciation for what a dose of silliness can do to memories, relationships, and the overall family narrative. Do you have any unusual words or terms in your personal family language? Feel free to comment!