This post is available as a vlog, for those who prefer to listen rather than read, and/or who appreciate the “non-verbal” elements of communication:
Family Shibboleths: a Glossary of Albert-isms
Last week I hosted my mom, two brothers, assorted nieces, and a nephew for Thanksgiving. My niece Laura brought this custom-made Bingo card:
(A little explanation: CAlbert means a California Albert; WAlberts are the Washington state Alberts; and the Wollenhaupts are other relatives from my mother’s side that came for lunch the next day.)
I dig this family Bingo concept. It’s a nice way to celebrate the little idiosyncrasies and oddities that make a family feel close. We didn’t actually compete at family Bingo; that would have required fourteen unique cards and people would have had to carry them around the whole time. Instead we just had the one card, posted to the fridge. As you can see, we fell just short of getting a complete blackout.
I think there’s room to refine this game and make it a tradition. First, we could have a card for each person, up on the fridge, and anyone could mark things off (that’s right—helping one another try to win). Second, we could improve on what goes in the squares. “Cats are unusually mean,” for example, could never apply in this household, because a) we have just one cat, and b) what counts as “unusually” mean, given that all cats are asocial predatory beasts?
Meanwhile, “NPR plays in the background” could apply to many a Bay Area home, but not mine—I dislike talk radio of any kind and there’d be no way to hear it over the din of this many Alberts anyway.
(As for the final missing square, “Someone spews their drink,” apparently the only reason this didn’t happen was that my nephew Peter couldn’t come; I’m told he “seems to make it his mission to make a sibling or relative laugh explosively while drinking, hoping that said drink will spew out of said relative’s nose.” Peter stayed home as he was required by his megalomaniac coach to attend basketball practice on Thanksgiving Day, just to kiss the ring and demonstrate that sport comes before family. But I digress.)
The family Bingo game got me thinking about why family gatherings are so enjoyable. For one thing, we get that comforting sense of belonging, of being among our tribe. The quirky, idiosyncratic lingo we tend to throw around helps cement this. (Of course my family isn’t alone in this; Roz Chast recounts here how she polled her friends to learn what term their families use for picking thru the fridge instead of cooking a meal; in her household they call this “fending.”)
I think of such linguistic peculiarities as a family shibboleth. In case you haven’t heard this term, Wikipedia defines it as “any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another.” Of course, I mean shibboleth in a good way; the origin of this word, from the Old Testament, is actually pretty dark: after a battle between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, any Ephraimite refugees who were intercepted were challenged to pronounce “shibboleth,” because in their dialect it sounded like “sibboleth.” Anyone who pronounced it this way was identified as the enemy and immediately killed.
Clearly this isn’t the point where family gatherings are involved; naturally we want everybody well-versed in our lingo. Generally our members pick it up easily enough. For example, early in the visit when I asked my youngest niece, age nine, if she liked butter, she looked puzzled and said something like “um … sure,” instead of the right answer which is, “yeah …. mmmmmbutter” … but when I asked her again three days later she responded correctly. Notwithstanding her swift adaptation, the family lingo can certainly be bewildering to a newcomer, and my niece Laura, recently engaged, asked me to create a family glossary for her fiancé’s benefit. Any time somebody asks me to write something, especially on the subject of words and wordplay, I find the prospect irresistible (as you can see here and here).
And so, I’ve compiled a glossary of Albert-isms, replete with etymologies. What does this have to do with you, the lay albertnet reader? Well, for one thing, if you’re reading this, you’re probably my mom, or perhaps one of my brothers. And even if you’re not, you ought to find these amusing. Moreover, I’ve witnessed family gatherings where people were too quiet or seemed lacking in family shibboleths, so I hereby give you permission to totally steal these and introduce them into your own family dialogue. (If any of my family members don’t like this, they can complain in the comments area below, or on their own social platforms).
I’ve grouped these into general categories, starting with food-related terms, since family gatherings tend to center around the kitchen. Next are the cinematic references my family is so fond of. The last section comprises the truly weirdest utterances, many of which celebrate important bits of family history dating back decades.
- Jukebox – microwave oven (origin: Kitchen Confidential; until my older daughter went off to college, she had no idea that this term, and the next three, weren’t ubiquitous)
- Microbe – see “microwave oven”
- Nuke – to heat in a microwave oven (e.g., “I don’t feel like cooking, let’s just nuke some leftovers”)
- Radar love – the process of heating via microwave oven (e.g., “this isn’t hot enough, give it a little more radar love”; origin: Kitchen Confidential)
- Bell’s seasoning – the key to Thanksgiving and thus the subject of much discussion
- Tranja (pronounced “TRAHN-ya”) – any tasty beverage, including energy drink; often used in the statement, “Drink—it’s tranja. I hope you relish it as much as I” (origin: Star Trek)
- Pretty yum – delicious (origin: five-star Yelp review of a Dim Sum restaurant in San Francisco, ca. 2015)
- “Do you like butter?” / “Yeah, mmmbutter.” – standard verbal exchange whenever butter is present (origin: my friend Pete’s home-ec teacher back in, like, 1983, responding spontaneously when randomly asked if she liked butter)
- Lekker – see “pretty yum” (origin: from Netherlands Alberts)
- Splaula – spatula, especially a rubber spatula (origin: what my daughters and I thought my wife had written on her shopping list years ago, due to her encryption-like handwriting)
- “You’re not the quarterback here, Mike!” – Say this whenever somebody is overstepping or attempting to have too much influence. Do not substitute your interlocutor’s name for “Mike.” Always say “Mike.” (Origin: Breaking Away)
- “Cutter started it!” – Trot this out whenever you’re chastised for pointlessly bickering. It’s not important who actually started the argument, of course. (Origin: Breaking Away)
- “It’s a crazy world.” / “Someone oughtta sell tickets.” / “Sure, I’d buy one.” – Whenever you encounter an instance of the world being, in fact, crazy, you should say so, and then wait for the correct response, which is the bit about selling tickets. If this response is not received, pause a few beats and then say, “Sure, I’d buy one” anyway, to inspire your interlocutor to do better next time. (Origin: Raising Arizona)
- “Say, that reminds me.” – Use this whenever changing the subject, or even when continuing on the same subject, or whenever harmless verbal garnish is desired (source: Raising Arizona)
- “I’m defecatin’ you negative!” – This is a more family-friendly way of saying, “I shit you not.” It avoids both the profane word and its common synonym, “poop,” which is of course far worse. (Origin: Raising Arizona, with “defecatin’” substituting for “crappin’” which is still too risqué for the youngest Alberts)
- “I guess that’s why they call it a Way Homer.” – Say this whenever one of your jokes bombs. If your interlocutor replies, “Why’s that?” then you say, with much hilarity, “Cause you only get it on the way home!” Ideally, the next response will be, “I’m already home, Glen” (even if your interlocutor is not at home). This will have been a perfect volley. (Origin: Raising Arizona)
- “Does the pope wear a funny hat in the woods?” – This simply means “yes” or perhaps “hell yeah.” (Origin: combination of a quote from Raising Arizona and the expression, “Does a bear shit in the woods?”)
- “Two dollars! Two dollars!” (while walking like a zombie) – This one is a bit tricky. You have to walk slowly with your spine totally erect, your head back, your eyes fixed on a distant point on the ceiling, and arms outstretched (i.e., like a zombie), while chanting “Two dollars!” over and over. Do this when you don’t know what else to do; for example, if somebody is explaining why he or she went gluten-free. (Origin: Better Off Dead, combined with some random zombie-walking which my young Dutch nephew Max first encountered around the same time. He somehow conflated the two, having probably never even seen Better Off Dead, and his father later complained that Max was staggering around like a zombie chanting “two dollars!” pretty much nonstop. Thus this is a tribute to youthful enthusiasm and joie-de-vivre.
- “Good luck … we’re all counting on you.” – Say this whenever anyone is embarking on anything. This is one of those lines that somehow improves with age and repeated usage. (Origin: Airplane)
- “Vaal is pleased.” – This is shorthand for “I am the eyes and ears of Vaal, and Vaal is pleased.” There’s no perfectly prescribed situation for using this; just exercise your best judgment. (Origin: Star Trek)
Particularly idiosyncratic Albert-isms
- Duh-huh or tuh-huh – just kidding. (Origin: when I first moved to California, I lived and worked with my brother Geoff; we biked to work and back together; we socialized together; in short, we were practically inseparable, and sometimes got a bit tired of one another, which could result in witty verbal exchanges that sometimes became caustic or acerbic. To soften this, we took to formally indicating the jocular nature of a comment by attaching “duh-huh” (which Geoff reckons is spelled “tuh-huh”) at the end. For example, we’d say something like, “Wait, you traveled three hours for this bike race and didn’t bring your UCSF license? Why would you think they’d let you register ... your good looks? Duh-huh!” Astonishingly, almost everyone we knew adopted this usage, including this one kid, Dave E, who couldn’t even say it right so it came out “duhhhht.” More than thirty years later, this is still standard usage among Alberts, across generations.)
- Mmmmmyello – this is how to answer the phone (origin: our friend Davey’s mom back in like 1980)
- Brrrowh – I don’t know (origin: contraction, over time, of “I dunno”)
- “Huh huh … no” – basically either “just kidding” or “scratch that” (origin: uttered by my friend Chris, as we were looking at VHS cassettes at the video store; he had suggested, “Let’s get Blame it on Rio” and then—realizing that his young lust was obviously the only possible motivation for wanting to see such a drippy movie—he got embarrassed and uttered the now immortal phrase, “huh huh … no” to try to retract it)
- “I need to drop some friends off in the toolit” – use this when you’re excusing yourself to go do a, uh, download. (Origin: the euphemism “drop some friends off at the pool,” warped unintentionally by a very young Albert, and spoken with a redneck accent for no clear reason)
- Micturate – urinate (this is certainly not an Albert coinage; it’s unclear how this became the family’s preferred term, given how seldom it’s typically used)
- “Okay, Christmas is canceled” – This is trotted out annually as a (so far empty) threat. (Origin: our mom said this repeatedly during our childhood, out of sheer exasperation at our awful behavior and/or her [and eventually everyone’s] contempt for the rampant commercialism of the holiday)
- Motherfrockle – motherf**er. (Origin: my niece Rachel, when very young, was verbally abused by another kid, and told her father but didn’t want to use the actual word, so he asked her to whisper it in his ear, and she put her mouth to his ear and whispered, “He called me a frockle!”)
- “I don’t wear contacts because I care about my eyes” – Say this whenever somebody mentions contacts, or puts them in, or takes them out, as a way to pass judgment. (Origin: our dad pompously declared this when he first learned I wear contacts; he followed it up with some long diatribe about how some lady friend of his, who had like the first generation hard contact lenses, slept in them and then they were stuck to her eyes; never mind that this was over forty years before and she was an idiot)
- EUx (Evil Uncle Dana, Evil Uncle Max, Evil Uncle Geoff) – All three uncles get the “Evil” moniker, and the standard abbreviation (e.g., EUD, EUM). (Origin: my brother Bryan was the first to have kids, and the last to become an uncle, so the rest of us got this label, mainly due to our actually being pretty much evil or at least a bad influence)
- “What we need here is a Physics major.” – Say this to insult a sibling. You can substitute whatever college major you need; for example, during an argument about grammar you could say to me, “What we need here is an English major.” (Origin: during a long, complicated scientific discussion, which included possibly all his sons and definitely Bryan, our dad said this, as if to deny the very fact of Bryan’s major, which was indeed Physics.)
- “You are real lucky.” – Say this to any family member who seems even remotely lucky or successful, or who has avoided failure or cataclysm, as a way to deny that his or her good fortune has anything to do with character, pluck, or effort. You can also tell yourself this several times a day, as a way of feeling gratitude. It’s especially useful if, like me, you actually are real lucky. (Origin: our dad said to me, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage,” in angry response to [what he evidently perceived as] my utter incompetence, when I did some very minor damage to my car. Details are here.)
- “You’re not very bright, are you.” – Say this to any family member who says or does anything even slightly incorrect or questionable. (Origin: our dad famously, though perhaps apocryphally, said this to me after I rode 130 miles over the highest pass in North America without proper food or even a jacket and got caught in a thunderstorm; details are here.)
- “I’m going out there, don’t try to stop me. / You fool, you’ll be killed! / I must do this … alone.” – Whenever you leave the house, utter the first statement. Your interlocutor should utter the second, and then you close out the dialogue with the third utterance. If your interlocutor neglects, or refuses, to provide the second statement, pause for a few beats and deliver the closing line anyway to inspire your interlocutor to do better next time.)
- “All over the place spaced-out BLEAAAH!” – This is a nice way to point out that a family member, particularly a teenager, has totally dropped the ball. (Origin: back in the ‘80s, our mom once completely lost her shit and delivered a powerful, thundering harangue including several instances of this very useful expression. The “BLEAAH!” part should be deliver with extreme gusto and high volume, ideally with your eyes practically bugging out. Note: do not deliver this diatribe in a library or museum.)
- “Bundle up Billy!” – Say this to any family member heading out into the cold, especially if you wish to advise and also demean the person (e.g., if you are talking to a teenager who finds the idea of a jacket, not to mention protective parenting, highly offensive). Do not substitute any other name for “Billy”—always use “Billy.” (Origin: actual quote concerning our friend Bill, whose loving mother said this to him and which we all took to saying to him constantly, all winter long, ad infinitum. Interesting aside: Bill now lives in Perm, Russia which isn’t technically Siberia but is halfway there; the average high temperature there in winter is just 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Bundle up, indeed!)
- “Come and get it or I’ll throw it out!” – what you say when the family meal is on the table (origin: one of those Time Life Old West books, probably The Cowboys; I read this sentence aloud to my mom and brothers back in like 1975 and it just stuck)
- Landlo’ – our mom’s second husband (origin: he actually was her landlord, and when he got greedy and said she either needed to buy the apartment or move out, she slipped between the horns of the dilemma by marrying him and thus moving in with him, which was a huge mistake as you can see here)
- “Bye” – Obviously this word itself isn’t a family shibboleth, but we say it in a very specific way, waving annoyingly by opening and closing a hand, which is held up right next to our face, which wears an expression of utter disgust and dismissal; useful whenever a family member departs but particularly through a car window as the family member drives away. (Origin: this is how one of us, or perhaps all of us at one time or another, were kicked out of Green Scene, a go-kart track, for reckless driving, in the mid-‘80s)
- Slaap lekker – sleep well (origin: literally, “sleep tasty,” this is a standard Dutch expression brought to us by the Netherlands branch of the family)
- Don’t let the hmm-hmmms bite – don’t let the bedbugs bite (origin: this is what our brother Geoff used to say to his son Max because he was very young and the idea of bedbugs terrified him)
- “You know, I really like [x]. I mean, I know that’s not profound or nothin’ … heck, we all do. But for me, I think it goes far beyond that.” – This is really useful, every time you encounter something you like. It’s a way of expressing gratitude very formally and passionately. (Source: a “Far Side” cartoon)
- “Outta my way, mother daughter!” – This expression gets nearly constant use: pretty much whenever a wife, mother, or daughter is in your way. I have two daughters, a mom, a wife, and at least eight nieces, and thus say it probably 700 times a year. (Origin: during a violent dispute with my brother Max, then a teenager, my dad fled down the hall, with Max in hot pursuit, ready to beat his ass; our brother Bryan was squarely in the way, either to intervene or as a pawn caught in a deadly game, and Max yelled something similar to this, except that what he said was decidedly more profane, along the lines of “outta my way, motherfrockle!” Granted, this is a pretty dark memory to be dredging up all the time, but perhaps by saying this jovially we’re neutralizing that old trauma, or at least owning it.)