Language Quirks


Watching the penultimate episode of this season’s Downton Abbey (note: this is not a spoiler unless perhaps you are a deep period language nerd, in which case let’s be friends,) I noticed that various characters used the word “stuff” at least half a dozen times, each time with a sort of pause before it and real emphasis behind it, as if to highlight that The Times, They Are A Changing and The Slang, It Is Entering the Noble Classes. (It was always the younger characters saying it- no “stuff” for “What is a week-end?” Dowager Violet, safe to say.)

And while I found this a little annoying while watching (me: “why is everybody saying ‘stuff’ all the time in this episode? It’s super distracting.” John: “You notice weird things.”) I am totally guilty of doing the same thing: enjoying a particular expression or turn of phrase so much that I end up unintentionally overusing it like some sort of SAT-word-dropping smugface.

You want examples? Well, for one, I use “exercised” as a synonym for “worked up,” which is something my parents have always said but which I recently discovered other people find weird. (Used in a sentence: “I am not usually one to get exercised about minor delays, but when I’ve made a reservation and have to wait for a table anyway I cross over from ‘polite customer’ into ‘total b*tch.’”)

Others: I am fond of “articulated“ used as an adjective to describe something that has joints (Articulated bus! Articulated fence! Articulated arm on a doll! ); I often simply declare “false!” when I disagree with a proposition or sweeping declaration; I say “esoteric” and “dilettante” and “idiosyncratic” more than is strictly necessary.

And that’s not even getting into the ridiculous verbal shortcuts/strange inside joke phrases that pepper our family vernacular. “Okey dokey artichokey” is one of Poppy’s favorite things to say. Whenever we’re having trouble carrying/are about to drop something, we complain that we’re “losing gription” (mercilessly mocking a friend who used this non-word, repeatedly, during a harrowing day spent helping friends move their very large furniture out of the very tiny stairwell in their apartment building.) We routinely refer to shady characters as being “shifty like penguin.” (Origin: another friend, asked incredulously why he didn’t like penguins, said with a completely straight face and without irony: “I don’t trust them. They’re shifty.”)

I love this about language: the ever-changing nature of it, the nuance, how the same idea can be expressed in dozens of different ways. So humor a language dork: what are some of your most beloved/overused words? Strange phrases you and your family use as shorthand? I live for this stuff!


12 Responses to Language Quirks

  1. Lauren says:

    Back when David and I were clerking together, before we started dating, he used the word “accoutrements,” but he used this very affected pronunciation, like he was French or something: “accoutremAAAHHHHH.” But he was being totally serious, and I immediately gave him crap for pronouncing it that way (which might even have been proper at some point, though I don’t know the language origin of the word). And I still throw the word around, pronounced like that, to tease him a decade later.

  2. Kate says:

    Ha! Lauren, that is exactly how I say accoutrements. I don’t think I know how to say it in English (I realize that is a ridiculous claim to make, but I really don’t), so I always say it French, but sort of …ironically. Actually, I mostly avoid saying it.

    I feel like doing a whole post on this topic (words and expressions, not just…accoutrements) — maybe I will!

  3. Jesabes says:

    Oh, I LOVE this stuff, too! I’ll have to try to think of some.

  4. Ris says:

    Let me just adjust my pretentious hat before I post this comment. Yep, it’s on straight now. Whenever I listen to WBEZ and they say an ad for “loom-air” (eyewear shop) I get a little twitchy. It’s lumiere. Loom-eee-air.

  5. NGS says:

    Birds ARE twitchy. And shifty. I’ve maintained that for a long, long time. “He’s twitchy like a bird. Must be guilty.” – Comment by NGS during every episode of Law and Order ever created.

    I teach a class where one primary component is vocabulary, but not day to day vocabulary, but pretentious post-grad level vocabulary. I make it a point to use one of the words every day in conversation, so I can tell my students all about how real people use these words and I crack up every time I use “anachronistic” or “atavistic” or “saturnine” because, really, how many people are using those to ask their kitty,”why are you acting all saturnine today?”!!!

  6. Erica says:

    I have actually been told in a professional capacity to turn down my vocabulary. I work with people from elsewhere in the world besides America, and for a lot of them English is a second language. Apparently, my work communications used too many “large words” that people didn’t understand.

    My daughter, at the age of four, used the term “aforementioned” in proper context. It freaked her preschool teacher right the heck out.

  7. K says:

    T uses many British words (tellie, dodgy, others I now can’t think of) that Ezra and Iris and I have adopted as well. However, we’ve had some…disagreements about the pronunciation of “aluminium.” I say “ah-LOO-min-um;” T likes to point out that second “i” and goes with “al-loo-min-NEE-um.” He gets het up. I tell him to go back from wherest he came. It’s love.

  8. Sarah says:

    Our family uses a lot of British-isms, me because I love fussy old English stuff and Jim because he loves loves movies like Reservoir Dogs and the like and enjoys pretending he’s Cockney or something. So our kids say “bloody” like a cuss word, with strict instructions that that’s for in-house entertainment only.

  9. Elsha says:

    I also say accoutrements with a French pronunciation. And I use the word “paraphernalia” all the time. As in, “yeah, I’m ready as soon as I get all the baby paraphernalia” My mom and I both make a point of pointing out places that “begs the question” could be used (with the proper meaning, not the way most people use it.) I say “unacceptable” a lot. That’s maybe not an uncommon word, but I use it with my kids all the time. For instance, instead of telling Kalena “don’t do that!” (which I do say sometimes) I’ll say, “Unacceptable behavior!” Not sure why, but I do.

    I can’t think of any of our slangy things, although I know we have them. I’ll have to comment again, hours from now when they all come back to me.

  10. Miranda says:

    I just added “Thesaurus” to my packing list for Charleston.

  11. Miranda says:

    Oh, and we say “silly willy billy philly” A LOT around our home thanks to My Little Pony. And my mom pronounces “onion” like it has a g in it: un-gin. We make fun of her regularly for that. I pronounce “crayon” like “crown” and Geoff makes sure I know it every.time. Hayley even corrects me now. “Okey dokey artichoky” is used around here, as well. There is so much more, I’m sure, that I just can’t recall right this second. I’ll think on it.

  12. Alice says:

    i’m regularly told i use “25 cent words” or “william & mary vocabulary” (a sort of backhanded compliment in VA, where W&M is a state school but has the reputation of only letting “smart people” in). i am slightly embarrassed to admit that in everyone’s list of Fancy Words i didn’t find ANY of them weird to use in regular conversation (with the exception of atavistic maybe!).

    i also find myself accidentally using the pretentious pronunciations of french words, often because i first learned/used them in french (which i recognize is not in any way a less pretentious explanation). so i say “crehp” rather than “crape” (for crepe) (unless we’re talking about crepe paper) and also say “accoutremuuuhn”, etc.