Some Hilarious, Outlandish and Downright Useful Words Other Families Have Coined
Updated: Mar 19, 2021
Good news: According to no lesser authority than Merriam-Webster, just because a word isn’t in the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s not a real word!
As the famed dictionary’s website puts it: “Many words that aren’t widespread enough to make it into the dictionary—words that are particular to a region or profession or even a family—are perfectly good words.”
This last group is of course the one we’re most interested in. The “Because Language” podcast (which, following a social media poll that might or might not be scientifically valid, named orbsiculate Words of the Week of the Year 2020!) even has its own term for it: “familialect.”
All of which means we are not alone in having vocabulary specific to our household. Since kicking off this project, we’ve heard from lots of you about your family words, too. Commonalities are that they tend to be clever, complex and in general more fun and interesting than your average words -- so we are delighted to be able to add them to our lexicon and share them with others here.
Sometimes one of the best parts, as in our case, is how individual family members find out that the word isn’t in general circulation.
Take the case of Molly Murphy, whose uncle likes to play fast and loose with language (our kind of guy!). When someone would say it was chilly outside, he would respond that it was “chilly con carne,” i.e. particularly cold out. One day when Molly was in college -- having no idea that the phrase was a pun on the dish chili con carne -- her roommate said it was chilly out and Molly replied: “It’s chilly con carne.” Seeing her roommate’s confusion, Molly helpfully explained that it meant “really cold.” At which point her roommate helpfully explained to Molly the actual meaning of the phrase, causing Molly to call home outraged that no one in the family had ever explained that to her.
(Perhaps not surprising, it was her sister, Sarah Zaphiris, who shared this story with us.)
Sadly, Mike Manship, 41, didn’t tell us how he found out only a couple of years ago that the word “mamananny” was not in general usage but, rather, was a term his sister invented because she decided that the word “granddaddy” needed a female equivalent. We bet it was a good one.
In fact, sometimes that ignorance is exactly what the word describes. “Our family’s word is despodo, which is used lovingly to call something or someone stupid in a sweetly embarrassing way,” explains Emma Hollister. “For example, my dad thought it was pretty despodo that it took me so long to realize that despodo wasn’t a real word!”
In other cases, people -- aware there was something unusual about the words they were encountering -- assumed there was a logical explanation, like being of foreign origin. Jill Tapper incorrectly thought “fablundgeon,” meaning all mixed up; “ribrostat,” for any type of gadget; “modragon” for a complex device or machinery; and “tribbi,” for any object that you can't think of the correct name for (oh, how we need this word!) were Yiddish colloquialisms. Several, instead, trace their origins to her husband’s army service.
Then there are the people who were only too aware that their family members had invented a given word, and then tried their hardest to keep it out of the family jargon. Like Michelle Slade Conneely, who notes that her husband created the word “momentaneously -- which basically means momentarily, but with extraneous hyperbole! I fought it for a while, but it’s here to stay.” Sorry, Michelle, but we’re glad you lost that particular battle.
Conversely, there are couples that feel that their adjustments to the English language represent a considerable improvement: Steve Holmes and his wife insist that “one swell foop” is much more evocative of the intended meaning than “one fell swoop.”
Appropriately enough, household family words often involve family (see: “mamananny”) and households. @beergeekgirl’s kin use “super cousin” to refer to your cousin’s kids. @restaurantjunkie’s uncle Tom came up with “biroll” for when two rolls of toilet paper are packaged together.
That's probably a word Abigail Tannebaum Sharon's family could use. She relates, “My dad, a colon and rectal surgeon, came up with the word “fartagenic.” Meaning, a food that is guaranteed to make you fart (e.g. black beans).”
And it’s not just the adults who can come up with better lingo. Katharine Black’s four-year-old granddaughter coined a word that could spare all of us a lot of unnecessary enunciation -- “hanitizer,” for hand sanitizer. Something the Sharon family might also want at their disposal.