by Kathryn Hymes: When people share a space, their collective experience can sprout its own vocabulary, known as a familect…
I celebrated my second pandemic birthday recently. Many things were weird about it: opening presents on Zoom, my phone’s insistent photo reminders from “one year ago today” that could be mistaken for last month, my partner brightly wishing me “iki domuz,” a Turkish phrase that literally means “two pigs.”
Well, that last one is actually quite normal in our house. Long ago, I took my first steps into adult language lessons and tried to impress my Turkish American boyfriend on his special day. My younger self nervously bungled through new vocabulary—The numbers! The animals! The months!—to wish him “iki domuz” instead of “happy birthday” (İyi ki doğdun) while we drank like pigs in his tiny apartment outside of UCLA. Now, more than a decade later, that slipup is immortalized as our own peculiar greeting to each other twice a year.
Many of us have a secret language, the private lexicon of our home life. Perhaps you have a nickname from a parent that followed you into adulthood. Maybe you have an old joke or a shared reference to a song. Sometimes known as familects, these invented words, pet names, in-jokes, and personal memes swirl and emerge from the mess of lives spent in close quarters. During the pandemic, we’ve spent dramatically more time in those quarters, and our in-group slang has changed accordingly.
Cynthia Gordon, an associate linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of Making Meanings, Creating Family, has spent much of her working life in the strange land of family discourse. “Any group of people that has extended contact over time and sees itself as distinctive is going to have some specialized uses of language,” Gordon told me. “Listening to recordings of other families is like being immersed in a different world.”
We speak differently in different settings—this is no surprise—depending on whom we’re talking to and what the purpose is. Whether the formalities of a work presentation for colleagues or awkward small talk on a first date, our language shifts as the context and audience change.
Familects are a part of the intimate register of language, the way we talk “backstage” with the people we are closest to. They’re our home slang, if you will, where we can be our nonpublic selves in all their weird glory. Familects can emerge from any type of family: big, small, chosen, or your “quaranteam,” as a friend calls it. Over time, these terms may become sticky in your inner circle.
What inspires this family-language invention? In general, sufficient time logged together and shared experiences as a unit. Children are frequently the architects of new words, especially while they’re learning to speak. As kids fumble and play with sounds and meaning, their cutesy word experiments can be picked up by the whole family, sometimes to be passed on between generations as verbal heirlooms of sorts. Many new familect terms are also forged in the building stage of close relationships, when couples or friends are creating private ways to show affection or navigate tricky conversations as they cross the fuzzy boundary from acquaintance to intimacy.
Mignon Fogarty, host of the Grammar Girl podcast, has been collecting these family words for years. Listeners call the podcast to offer their own family lingo and the stories behind it, giving the audience a glimpse into their relationship dynamics. “Families have their own famous people,” Fogarty told me, before sharing a recent example. “This family went to the dog park and there was a woman who looked just like her dog, named Stanley. Now whenever someone looks a lot like their pet, well, they have a Stanley situation on their hands.”
Familects help us feel like family. Private in-group language fosters intimacy and establishes identity. In a study on the use of idiosyncratic terms among couples, researchers found that personal language nurtures a feeling of closeness and often appears in attempts for connection or reconciliation. When people use familect terms, they reinforce the stories, rituals, and memories that hold them together as a group. “Every time they use that phrase, they are pointing to all the previous uses of it,” Gordon said. “It reaffirms their ‘familyness’ in a way. It re-creates their relationship.”
Of course, our home lives have been altered during the pandemic. Because language is our messy, human interface for grappling with the world, it changes when we change. COVID-19 is a collective major life event that has already made us unfortunately fluent in new terminology: lockdowns, covidiots, pandejos, flattening the curve, and other epidemiological jargon.
Gordon noted that, for remote workers, office culture has bled into family life, and wondered how language from each realm might mix. For others I spoke with, the pandemic may have provided an environment where familects thrive: increased isolation with your intimates. Still, it’s too soon to know definitively how the way we talk has changed; Fogarty didn’t report a marked uptick in the number of terms listeners sent to her over the year.
I put a call out to friends to catalog familect stories of the pandemic. Amie Ferrier, a 38-year-old fiddle teacher who lives in Grass Valley, California, gave me quarantum, a “joyful word about our new round bellies,” which she shares with her husband. They also developed Trumping out, a euphemism for the ramping anxiety from news overload. “I can ask my husband if he’s Trumping out as a gentle way to check in and see if he’s ready to put the phone down for the night,” she told me.
Alex Roberts, a 31-year-old graduate student living on Vancouver Island, in Canada, shared hog, a new word among her housemates that means “a small amount of coffee; less than a full cup.” She explained that this comes from “a smaller-than-the-others coffee mug with a little hedgehog on it that my roommates and I found one day.” Hog has become an established unit of measurement in her house: “I’ve now also asked for and been offered half a hog.”
Many people told me that the increased time spent with immediate family was the biggest influence on their home language. “We have had more time to do banal things together, and thus greater opportunities to develop the shorthand that forms and enlivens … our lives,” Lizzie Stark, a 39-year-old nonfiction author and game designer in the Boston area, told me by email. Her family’s mornings start off with a party, a term she and her husband use to spice up their quotidian routine of drinking Metamucil, and end with the Cuteness Report, a nightly check-in on their sleeping toddler.
While living under the weight of what can feel like constant, history-shaping upheaval, we might be tempted to dismiss these words as frivolous, at-times-embarrassing artifacts of everyday life. But everyone I spoke with valued their familect. They delighted in sharing it. They saw it as an intimate extension of their home. As we talked, I could feel the energy between us shift, a mixture of pride and vulnerability, as they trusted me with the family dictionary. Gordon told me that sharing one’s familect is also the act of welcoming outsiders into one’s clan. “The truth is,” she said, “moment by moment, in everyday language use, we create our families.”