Inevitable at many family gatherings are the stories about two to four-year-old speech, either mangled words, or made-up words as the child struggles to express thoughts obviously going on inside their heads. This can sometimes be deadly if it either strays into the “Oh how cute” zone—wherein love fuels about 90% of the fun factor, like “Our Little Bit says bafwoomb instead of bathroom. Isn’t that precious?”—or into the Family Olympic Competition zone, usually signaled by the warning cry of “My kids are just so brilliant!” anecdote that inevitably unleashes a cascade of similar anecdotes, everyone marking time until the last speaker pauses to take a breath so they can jump in and unload their Little Bit’s latest proof of future brilliance.
But sometimes these kinds of exchanges of stories are both fun and enlightening. The ones I love are the kid-invented words that show how their minds work, or the oddities of kid communication that aren’t easily explained away by soft palate development. Like the two-year-old who was just beginning to talk, and made a clear distinction between “babies” and “beings.” To the adults, the two terms appeared at first to include every human under the age of six months. But the toddler was persistent in two separate terms, though, because she was two, she couldn’t articulate the difference. Yet a difference she perceived, quite stubbornly. “That’s a baby.” “Is this one a baby?” “No, that’s a being.” “Is this one over here a baby or a being?” “Baby.” Within a year, when she had more vocabulary, she stopped differentiating babies and beings, so the adults never did find out what was going on in her head.
Then there are terms that you wouldn’t think of but make sense. Like a former neighbor’s three-year-old who warned my kid not to touch a fragile crystal statuette, before the other adults in the room could leap up. “Don’t touch! That’s glassible.” Glassible. What a great term. Of course by the time that kid was in kindergarten her language had been guided into conventional channels, and she’d forgotten about glassible. But that one has stuck with me for nearly thirty years.
The ones I like best are family words. Like when I was young, there was my grandmother’s word munket. Munketing was rubbing something against your upper lip. Usually something soft, like the silk edging on blankets, but it could be anything. Back in the germ-anxious fifties, this was a terrible thing; I remember getting landed on at the San Diego zoo because the steel rail was exactly at my face level. I couldn’t see much, so I started munketing, rubbing my upper lip over the smooth, cool steel, until my grandmother shrieked with fear about all the germs I was taking aboard.
I asked my grandmother a couple years back if she remembered where she got the word munket but she didn’t remember ever using it. I guess when we kids grew out of this horrific behavior, the word vanished from family use.
Finally, there is the social baggage that goes with words, even if misunderstood. When you’re a teacher, you become hyper-aware of the ages at which perfectly harmless words begin to take on extra meanings. “Why do I teach second grade?” a fellow instructor once said at a faculty meeting. “Because if the word for a semiaquatic rodent with webbed feet and a broad flat tail comes up in the text we just go happily on. I don’t have to lose five minutes getting them under control again, like you junior high teachers must.”
She was right. There was a list of perfectly good words we tiptoed around, because none of us were those stern-browed, awe-inspiring teachers whose laser glance could kill a giggle at fifty paces.
But no matter how careful you were, you could always be taken by surprise. Like the time I was dictating new vocabulary to a class of sixth graders. When I got to the word “Prostrate” the trio of boys to my left all twitched, their countenances stiffening into the expression midway between bug-eyed and looking stuffed that boys get when just barely controlling a hysterical outbreak of laughter. It wasn’t until I said gently “Definition: lying face down on the floor or ground,” that all three young faces instantly cleared to disinterest, and the lesson returned to its accustomed daily tread.
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