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I’ve been thinking heavy thoughts all week—about liberal arts education, public discourse and its discontents, the challenges of the creative process, curricular dilemmas, etc. In other words, classes began this week at Calvin University and we plunged in deep, as usual. So instead of brooding on any of those topics, I’d like to turn to something more delightful, specifically: idiolects.
Idiolect is a linguistics term that refers to very, very particular ways of speaking. We’re not talking about a language, or a dialect, or even current slang, but rather those little ways of speaking that are idiosyncratic to a particular person or family unit. In other words, the weird little turns of phrase that only you and maybe your family use. Surely you have some of your own.
Here are a few of ours. For me, what’s fun about these is that they all have origin stories. Isn’t it strange how some words or phrases just hit you, and then get stuck in your linguistic tool set? They become a sort of playful family code.
“You’ve gots to have kaysh!”
Origin: Long ago, somewhere in Minnesota, our friend Janell was on a road trip and stopped for gas but didn’t have any cash. Writing checks was not unusual in Minnesota at the time. So she explained her situation to the cashier and started writing a check. The cashier could not believe this young woman was traveling without cash! So poor Janell got a word of exasperated advice from an older, wiser woman, delivered in a rural Minnesota accent.
Usage: When we’re getting things together for a trip, this is how we remind ourselves to get some currency before leaving. The truth is, however, one no longer gots to have kaysh. We traveled for three weeks in Europe last year and never once exchanged currency or pulled a bill or coin out of our wallets. So these days, one can replace the word “cash” with whatever else one needs to travel, as in “You’ve gots to have a toothbrush!”
“Short retirement urges sweet return.”
Origin: Milton. Seriously. It’s a line from Paradise Lost, book 9. Adam says it to soothe himself into reluctantly agreeing with Eve’s plan to really get after their prelapsarian gardening work by splitting up for the morning. “You prune and prop over there, Adam, and I’ll work over here,” is basically her idea, because Eve is into efficiency (and probably needs a break from Adam). Poor Adam doesn’t like the idea one bit because he can’t bear being away from Eve for two seconds, so he cheers himself up with the idea of how sweet their lunchtime reunion will be.
Usage: Ron and I say this to each other when one of us has to travel somewhere, like for some conference or something. Unlike Adam, Ron does not usually fritter away our time apart by weaving me a floral garland.
Origin: Ron and I and the kids made up this word—I think we were all in the car at the time—to describe units of concentration energy. We were trying to figure out a way of describing how much brain power you’ve got for concentrating on something hard. Like, what is the unit? We came up with “concetrons.”
Usage: When we are too tired to do whatever we’re supposed to be doing, we might say: “Ugh, I just don’t have the concetrons right now.” Or, conversely, when we are ready to work on something: “Sure, I’ve got some concetrons at the moment.”
“So then I says to the guy, I says, look…“
Origin: Honestly, I don’t know. But this line goes waaaaay back to college. I suspect it came from our friend Janell, too.
Usage: This is how we break an awkward silence. You’re sitting there. No one has anything particular to say. Everyone sighs. And then you say this, as if you were in the middle of telling a story all along, and you’re about to go on. But you don’t. You just fall into silence again.
Origin: Ron made this up long ago. Of course, we don’t believe in God points. We’re Reformed. It’s all grace, etc. However, there are times when those of us laboring in the vineyards of the Lord notice that we aren’t typically lavishly compensated in any earthly way, so in order to quell our need for credit, we imagine–ironically, of course–that someone is keeping track of points.
Usage: When you agree to play music at two church services in a row, you might say, “Think of all the God points I’ll earn!” Or if you are tempted to stay home on Sunday morning, you might remark, “I bet we have enough God points saved up to get away with it!” Come to think of it, maybe we do kind of believe in God points. (Note: Attending Sunday evening services throughout childhood tends to rack up points quickly. And there’s no expiration date on those.)
“There’s a lot of pain the world“
Origin: The cartoonist behind Hyperbole and a Half once did a parody of the little hospital pain scale charts that nurses and doctors show you so you can rate your pain on a scale of 1-10. We always thought this cartoon was hilarious. Meanwhile, the phrase itself comes from Ron’s colleagues at Western Theological Seminary. It’s something they say to each other when someone else (a student, another colleague, anyone else) is lashing out or behaving meanly. It’s a way of reminding themselves that there’s probably some pain behind that behavior. Ron had t-shirts made combining the cartoon with the phrase.
Usage: Can be used in any of three ways. First, to remind one another to act graciously toward someone who is being obnoxious. Second, it can be used patronizingly when someone is complaining about some little inconvenience. Finally, it can be used seriously when you hear terrible news—someone’s cancer has relapsed, someone’s kid has been arrested—and you just don’t know what else to say.
Image credit: Hyperbole and a Half
Origin: This one depends on knowing that most musicians believe viola players have easy parts and play badly, which I still insist is an unjust stereotype. Here’s what happened. I was driving along with my friend Jennifer, a professional violinist. We were on our way to an orchestra rehearsal sometime in the early 1990s. She was in the passenger seat, frantically preparing to lead sectionals for the second violins, and she wondered aloud what on earth the violas would do during sectionals. As a violist, I had to defend my tribe: “We have hard passages to practice!” I protested. “Well,” she mused skeptically, “I guess you can do some nice viola bonding.” We both burst into knee-slapping laughter.
Usage: Describes those occasions when no official business is accomplished and instead people just get to know one another. Can be used with an eyeroll to describe some required meeting that went on and on, that you didn’t want to go to anyway, and at which you feel your time was grievously wasted. “How was that four-hour church meeting on Monday night?” “Oof, it was all viola bonding.” Sometimes, viola bonding is actually nice, and the phrase can be used appreciatively: “First we did some viola bonding, and then we moved on to the agenda.”
“It’s the mystery of things“
Origin: A Roz Chast cartoon. We went through an intensive Roz Chast phase in the mid-1980s. This particular cartoon isn’t even all that funny, but somehow, the title stuck with us. I guess it’s the … you know.
Usage: Anytime you can’t explain something tiny, like why the garbage disposal suddenly stopped working or where that stupid charge cord disappeared to. Alternatively, the phrase can explain (or actually not-explain) the motivations behind someone’s horrible behavior. (See “There’s a lot of pain in the world.”)
Image credit: Roz Chast, Parallel Universes, Harper & Row, 1984
Origin: Not sure. Probably we were all saying this during the Covid quarantine.
Usage: Declared to celebrate that moment when public work for the day is done and you can strip off whatever professional garments you had to squeeze into and change into comfy PJs. Doesn’t have to mean work is done for the day—there may be emails to manage yet—but never mind, you’ll be doing it in comfy clothes, probably wrapped in a comfy blankie. The best days are when pajama time hits at about 3 pm.
Anyone else have some good idiolect examples?