Biggys and Numpty Muppets

Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker has described language as the means by which we come to pair a meaning with a sound. So when we hear the word chair we visualize something upon which to sit, and when we hear the sound duck we expect to see or hear about a feathered bird. These pairings mean that we are able to communicate experiences or concepts to others, thus reducing our need to witness or experience something firsthand. Very useful, you might say – especially in terms of pooling our knowledge and handing it down to future generations.

If we expand this argument to take a look at endangered words, there is really very little reason why we shouldn’t adopt a few of these underused words to communicate experiences or concepts within our family groups. If the average 6-year-old knows 10,000 words and the average adult knows something between 50,000 and 100,000 words, surely we could adopt ninnyhammer – whether it is serving its dictionary defined role or simply acting as a stand-in for another word?

Since my last entry I have thought more about our family lives in relation to language. I’ve also thought some more about endangered words in general and I’ve received many comments about rolling pins and your rolling-pin-moments .

I’ve been quizzing friends, family members, and in some case complete strangers, on the words they have adopted for use within their family groups. Naturally there are the euphemisms, most often related to delicate subjects (notably toilet euphemisms, such as biggy, wee, and floater). There also many words or phrases used within families as terms of endearment (one woman says she often calls an energetic child ‘Jiggle and Shake’, a dad admits to calling his youngest child ‘Numpty Muppet’.

I can’t help thinking that these unique in-family associations between words and meaning are quite common. I would even go further and say that where a word is adopted in place of another, the shared experience that has lead to that word being adopted often pulls the family knot tighter. Taking the rolling pin example of an earlier blog, the fact that a holidaying family has had to struggle to communicate the words rolling pin to strangers, and in the process of trying to explain the word, has described it as a moveable stick or roly-poly thingy, means that upon their return from holiday, a rolling pin in their household is more than likely to become known as roly-poly thingy or the moveable stick.

By rechristening this mundane piece of kitchen equipment, they are reliving the moment during which — many miles away and quite possibly in sunnier climes — they banded together to get their message across.

The more that I look at how we use language within our families – these tiny social groups – the more I am struck by the thought that a story such as Carnaby’s Great Uninvited, which centres on a chaotic family, in which relationships are formed and consolidated, broken and reformed, is just the sort of story into which we can weave obscure and endangered words.

And now, straight off the bat . . .

Carnaby’s Off-Kilter Prize goes to Chinese designer Zhuoying Li – the (hopefully) ironic artistic genius responsible for the Uniface Mask (

While The Brabbler’s Sizzling Squib for Endangered Words goes to Broadcaster John Humphreys for his witty and powerful book Lost for Words (Published Hodder Paperbacks July 2005).

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