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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.

God points
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


Viola bonding
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

Pajama time!”
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?

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Great stuff. We will start jotting down ours.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Delightful. How about this one: randoms. Origin story: my brother-in-law is a genius at familial neologisms, often a blend of English and German. Usage: any occasion of describing a gathering of people that includes strangers such as “did you notice the randoms in church this morning?” (theologically problematic) or “and then a bunch of noisy randoms sat right by us on the beach.” Useful as both mild rebuke and gentle endearment.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    That kid sure can skate
    Origin: My father, whose love for his grandchildren was wonderfully obvious, took things off the charts when his first great-grandchild was named after him. He followed the boy’s developing skills with an intense pride that his grandchildren found fondly amusing. Hockey was the namesake’s sport of choice and, of course, his great-grandfather who attended many of his games thought no child had ever skated as well. At least once at every Sunday dinner with my dad, we would hear, “Boy, that kid sure can skate.”

    Application: Now, if I get hyperbolic about the virtues of one of my grandchildren in the presence of their father (my son) who as a teen shared that dinner table with his grandfather, he tempers my pride with “Boy, that kid sure can skate.”

  • Wes and Joyce Kiel says:

    “Somebody needs a nap” and not always the kids.

    Wes is given credit for many wise sayings now called Wesisms.

    “You’re standing.” Used when someone else needs a hug.

    • Kathryn Vilela says:

      This is one of those little quirks of life that I’m DELIGHTED to learn that there’s a term for! My siblings and I have such a comprehensive (and most often hilarious) idiolect that if you pair any two of us up in a game like “Taboo”, we will absolutely obliterate non-family teams and leave them thoroughly confused! You’ve inspired me now to start our own dictionary – although we won’t be able to share it too widely, of course, lest our board game opponents steal our edge.

  • Thomas Huissen says:

    “Stay awoke!”

    My father was introduced to this (and many other phrases not appropriate to this journal) by his Drill Instructor during basic training at the height of the Korean Conflict.

    Apparently, there were those within Dad’s unit who weren’t paying attention, and the DI struggled with tenses.

    Of course, “woke” has taken a life of its own, but “Stay awoke!” has lived within my family for nearly 70 years.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Oh! You’ve reminded me of “the deer are running from the danger,” introduced by the Clinical Pastoral Education version of a drill instructor. It was used to mean “This group is avoiding the issue.”

  • Dawn says:

    You make me laugh out loud!!! I LOVE these in our family!! I love that they’re ‘ours’!
    I must admit, a lot of ours are movie quotes that we can’t let go of!! Hope they count 🙂
    Recently, I was at a cidery and I heard an employee say, “Just in cases” and I caught her eye and said Love Actually? To which she responded, of course 🙂

    You have such a way with words, thank you for taking the time to write fun and important and thoughtful blogs! They are so appreciated, by me!!

  • Bethany kj says:

    I feel like we’ve co-opted some Rienstralect in the past but some kj originals:
    The kitchen is a jerk: cleaning must be done but surely it’s not the fault of any of the people in this household

    Justining the store: checking every possible clearance section for a deal

  • Kathy says:

    Does “Dutch Bingo” qualify? Always generates a quizzical look from anyone who isn’t from my small Dutch hometown!

    Another in our house was “Or was it Thursday?” which would stop anyone in their tracks who was telling a story, but kept changing when it happened. Example, “So, (every story begins with the word ‘so’) Monday, I was in town, wait, no – it was Tuesday, when Michael said he was going to Seattle – no wait, it WAS Monday, because he had just gotten the weeks’ groceries and he ALWAYS goes to the store on Monday at 9:00 am when they are done stocking the shelves!” Eventually, someone would groan in a loud voice, ”Or was it Thursday??!!” Get on with it already!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    In our family we call cigarettes “boogs.” (Don’t ask why we make use of the term.) Melody spells it “bogues” but I spell it “boogs.” We got it from a Japanese Missionary Kid years ago. I think it comes from “Bogart,” as in “Don’t bogart that joint.” And then, “Shall we have the post-prandial?” means the very civilized one after dinner.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you much, Debra.
    #1. “Bloogie bag”
    Origin unsure, though our family for three generations has used this after my illustrious uncle, Richard R. Tiemersma, invented it or came back from WW2 with it.

    Usage: Why use “toilet travel kit” when “bloogie bag” saves two precious syllables. Better yet, no one else in the world outside of our small clan seems to have no idea what it means. It even works as travel toiletries have inflated in number and bulk.

    #2. “Picturesque,” pronounced “pictureskew,” of course.

    Origin: My learning of phonics as a child.

    Usage: Obvious. . .

    Consequences: My oldest daughter came home from Grade 8 in Edmonton where a classmate was reading aloud during English. The kid read picturesque, but my daughter immediately raised her hand and said, “Mrs. Vos, it’s ‘pictureskew.” Mrs. Vos: “What?” Daughter: “It’s what my dad says.” Mrs. Vos: “Go ask you dad.” Daughter came busting into the house and down to my study, “Dad, it’s “pictureskew,’ right?” Dad, “Uh, why do you ask?” That was the day she discovered her father was not infallible.

    #3: Gifted!
    Origin: A Gary Larson *Far Side* gem with the homely, chubby little boy (Larson’s youthful avatar) standing at the door of “School for the Gifted” and pushing at a door with a large sign, “PUSH.”

    Usage: The moment one of the family does something similarly “Gifted,” as in “Where’s my laptop?” when it’s just slightly obscured under today’s newspaper, though the laptop’s identifying “Plaster Creek Stewards” sticker is glaring out at the questioner.

  • Connie Kuiper VanDyke says:

    In a physics class our eldest son was working on an experiment that involved a swinging knife, and his partner said to him “You’re tempting the blade!” when he got too close. So our family uses “Tempting the blade” for any situation where you may be cutting things close

  • Rick Boonstra says:

    I remember one in our family: the family legend Aunt Hiny.
    I never met her but I was told that Aunt Hiny was so obsessed with tidiness that if you woke in the night to use the bathroom by the time you returned your bed was made. Usage: whenever anyone obsesses about cleanliness we tell them to “stop Hinying up”.

  • Todd K says:

    My mom, Janice, ever the good steward, would rarely discard any food container/package until it was absolutely empty. Hence the presence of, for example, a box of Cheerios in the cupboard containing about a quarter cup of oat dust and approximately three intact Cheerios, and the bottle of dressing in the fridge that would need to be inverted for not less than 4 minutes to yield an eyedropper of ranch. So in our household the term for a tiny amount of food product remaining in a container/package is “janice.”

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