Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

Family words in Texas

The Fort Worth, Texas, Star-Telegram has asked its readers for “family words,” terms they believe to be coined and used only by them and their relatives. The idea was spawned, of course, by Paul Dickson’s Family Words: A Dictionary of the Secret Language of Families. It’s really a fascinating list, in a way that lists of words coined for contests or coined to make the coiner become famous or seem clever almost never are. Paul’s book is pretty good, too.

The main reason, I think, that I enjoy this sort of word list more than just about any other is because most of the terms were accidentally or organically derived out of circumstances. That is, nobody stood around going, “We need a word for this! Let’s think up something funny!” Instead, something happens, it becomes a bit of a family in-joke or legend, and then a shorthand for the whole circumstance naturally springs up. That’s how most new words are really derived. They don’t come from contests and self-loving comic coiners.

From a lexicographer’s standpoint (rather than from just a word geek’s standpoint), the best thing about lists like these is that in a good number of cases, the words aren’t limited to the families which claim them but are, unbeknownst to them, rather widespread. That, plus the fact that family word self-reporting is somewhat more accurate than surveying people about other kinds language, means the lists are pretty good starting points for further research.

(The reason this kind of self-reporting is marginally better is that the words reported tend to have already withstood the test of time and usually still have currency. They can offer reliable examples of how they’re used and what they mean.)

By the way, do you want to know a secret about how you can quickly judge the value of a list of words someone has printed, posted, or emailed? I mean, judge them according to whether anyone really uses them, whether they have real world usefulness, whether they will withstand the test of time, and whether they will spread further?

Here it is: First, count the blends, where two words are combined to make one. Second, count all the entries that are supposed to be funny (I write “supposed to be” because blends almost never are). You can almost always tell if they’re supposed to be funny because there are bad puns, there are exclamation marks, something Sunday-school-naughty is implied, or the author or forwarder has even told you that they’re supposed to be funny.

Add those two totals together. If most of the words on the list have either or both of those traits, then you can move on to something else. The list probably won’t be worth the time it takes to read it. A practiced lexicographer can eye this sort of stuff accurately in seconds.

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Grant Barrett