Thursday, February 19, 2009

Made-up words

A few weeks ago, my parents were in town and we got to talking about all the cute ways my girls used to say certain words: "lellow" for "yellow", "mazageen" for "magazine", etc. My father then added, "And remember, when you were little, you used to say 'ku' for 'kiss'!"

I responded that it wasn't the same, because I was just using a different language. Sure, it's cute to mix up languages, but it's not the same as mispronouncing a word in a particular language. My father responded, "Well, it's hard to say, because, you know, it's like a made-up language."

I kept insisting that it wasn't "making up" a language just to slip in a foreign word now and then, until something occurred to me. I asked my parents directly, "Isn't 'ku' the Taiwanese word for 'kiss'?"

It is NOT. As I learned only that afternoon, the Taiwanese word for "kiss" is, roughly transliterated, something like "jim". "Ku" is not a Taiwanese word, or a Mandarin word. It's something I made up as a young child because I apparently couldn't pronounce "kiss", and my parents kept using it because they thought it was cute. When speaking Taiwanese, we'd stick it in sentences like "Come on, ku me", with all the particles and such that are used instead of inflection. And because I rarely spoke Taiwanese with anyone except my parents, and the word "kiss" didn't typically enter into casual conversation with others, I never figured it out. I have been using a made-up word for thirty years! It kind of blew my mind, which wasn't a good thing since I was driving at the time.

I know it's common to have "inside" words and sayings among family and friends, but typically you know they're inside terms and use them only with the proper audience. I've been racking my brain trying to figure out whether I ever used "ku" with anyone other than my parents and what they must have thought I was trying to say.

The only inside word I can think of that I use with my daughters is "dab", which we use to denote the use of a towel to wipe one's face while bathing or showering. It started when I'd say "dab dab dab" while bathing my daughter when she was a baby. She eventually learned to ask for it, "Need a dab!" and now both my kids are known to call for "dab towels" from the tub. I'm beginning to think that sometime I should tell them explicitly that this isn't exactly what "dab" means. Otherwise, I can imagine one of them yelling to her spouse someday, "Honey, I need a dab!" and having the same shocked reaction I did when I realized my word wasn't real.

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