Probably all families have a store of catch phrases–familiar “in house” sayings that serve as shorthand for getting a point across, or calling up a common memory. Some are universal, like “Don’t make me come up there,” or, “Do you want me to stop the car?”
But others are particular to an individual family’s experience. My mother would often put an end to a litany of our desires for things that weren’t going to happen– I wish I was an only child; I wish I didn’t have to do the dishes; I wish I had my own room–with the proverb “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” And my siblings and I still say it, with a smile and a silent nod to Mom.
Recently my daughter mentioned that she’d wrapped up an explanation on how to complete a task with the words, “And Bob’s your uncle.” She was met with a puzzled stare. The phrase is old-fashioned British slang, meaning “you’re all set.” It caught my fancy years ago. The first time I said it to my young children, the words sent them into fits of giggles because of our dog, Bob. The thought of dog as uncle was quite hilarious to them (did I say they were quite young?). They picked up the term and used it, until it became part of our store of particular, and perhaps peculiar, family expressions.
Other adages we use that others probably do not developed out of specific family situations. On an afternoon that had been filled with petty arguments and tears, I sternly told my children that I didn’t want to hear another fight that day. About half an hour later, my youngest daughter, Brenna, wailed in frustration, “Sara is silent fighting with me!”
She then proceeded to demonstrate the loophole her older sister had found in my edict. By mouthing words without sound, accompanied by fierce expressions and menacing hand gestures, Sara proved it was possible to tease and annoy without breaking silence. The phrase “silent fighting” thus came into general family use.
Another go-to family aphorism is the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” It comes from the Herman Melville story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” wherein the title character refuses all requests with that simple, but implacable, response. I had always liked the subtle insubordination of it, and used the decree both in jest and for real, depending on the circumstance. I didn’t realize Brenna had adopted it until at age 5, she answered a request from her teacher with the words, “I would prefer not to.” Which I correctly read as a harbinger of the quiet but steely force of will lurking beneath her blue-eyed, curly-haired angelic demeanor.
In the eighth grade, her older sister Sara made another contribution to the family lexicon, when she chose an ambitious topic for her first research paper, the Watergate scandal, which was akin to ancient history to her. The concluding line of her paper revealed both her boredom with the topic and her hope that an abrupt ending would be attributed to forces beyond her control. “Nobody knows what happened to the Watergate Seven.”
To which I had to answer, “Yes, Sara, yes they do. Quite a few people know exactly what happened to them, and I think you need to find out, too.” She completed her assignment, received a respectable grade, and added another axiom to our family. It’s still our go-to phrase for any half-formed effort or ill-conceived project that dies aborning, as in “Nobody knows what happened to … Susan’s 6 weeks to fitness challenge.”
The language of families is a strange and wonderful thing. Rejoice in yours.
This post first appeared two years ago and is back because it popped up in my Facebook memories feed at just the moment when I’m battling an epic cold that turned into a respiratory infection. The drugs to combat it have left me a little fuzzy-headed and low on creative writing juice. 🤧A new one next time.