Does your family use a special word you’ve never heard anywhere else? A funny name for “the heel of a loaf of bread,” perhaps, or for “visiting relatives who won’t leave.” In this week’s episode, Martha and Grant discuss “family words,” and Martha reveals the story behind her own family’s secret word, “fubby.”

This episode first aired January 19, 2008.

Download the MP3.

Why do we say that someone who’s pregnant is “knocked up”? The hit movie starring Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen has a caller wondering about this term.

A man whose last name is McCoy wants a definitive answer about the origin of the expression “the real McCoy.” He’s been told it comes from the name of turn-of-the-century boxing champ Kid McCoy. Is that really the case? Grant and Martha reference the Dictionary of Scots Language for answers.

A Michigander wants to know about the difference between titled and entitled. She’d assumed that a book is titled Gone with The Wind and a person is entitled to compensation for something. Grant and Martha explain it’s a little more complicated than that.

Quiz Guy Greg Pliska presents a quiz about “False Plurals,” based on the old riddle: What plural word becomes singular when you put the letter “s” at the end of it? (Hint: Think of a brand of tennis racket, as well as the former name of a musical artist before he changed it back again.)

Quick, which is faster? Something that happens instantly or that happens instantaneously? A caller wants to know if there’s any difference between the two.

A Brazilian has been researching why actors use the unlikely expression “break a leg” to wish each other well before going on stage. He suspects it’s a borrowing of a German phrase that means, “May you break your neck and your leg.”

A caller who lived in the Bay Area during the 1960s remembers using the word loosecap to describe someone who’s “not playing with a full deck.” He wonders if he and his friends are the only ones to use it, as in, “Don’t be such a loosecap!”

This week’s “Slang This!” contestant tries to decipher the slang phrases dance at two weddings and put the big pot in the little pot. She also shares her own favorite slang terms for crumb crusher, rug rat and ankle biter. By the way, you can read Grant’s essay about slang terms for small children, “Sprogs in a Poop Factory.” His column about language appears every two weeks in The Malaysia Star newspaper.

A caller fears that the term Indian giver is politically incorrect, and wants an alternative to teach her children.

A Princeton University student wonders if his school can lay claim to being the first to apply the Latin word campus to the grounds of an institution of higher learning.

By the way, if you want to read about more family words, check out Paul Dickson’s book, Family Words: A Dictionary of the Secret Language of Families.

Here’s hoping all of you are happy fubbies!

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46 Responses

  1. Aris Bartee says:

    I am excited to find out that the term “Yard” was used before the term “Campus”. When I went off to college I picked up the habit of referring to school/campus as the “The Yard”. I have only known other black people at HBCUs or greeks and friends of greeks at non-HBCUs refer to a college or university as “The Yard”.

  2. MarcParis says:

    My suggestion for “Indian giver”.

    On the model of “regifting” and “regifter”: degifter (and degifting… which has no equivalent, so we are usefully expanding the lexicon of bad behavior).

    –Marc Naimark

  3. Aris, I never heard of that distinction before. How interesting. Which HCBU did you attend?

  4. Marc, now you have me wondering about “disgifting.” I kind of like that even better, since it’s so close to “disgusting”!

  5. Aris says:

    I didn’t attend a HBCU but that’s the only other place I heard it used. I attended school at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, TX.

    martha said:

    Aris, I never heard of that distinction before. How interesting. Which HCBU did you attend?

  6. MarcParis says:


    Maybe “disgifting” is too strong. But there could also be “ungifting”.

    I’m still sticking with “degifting”. And I thought about the noun “degift”, and an expression, “the degift of love”. That would be when your partner breaks up with you, saying s/he never loved you in the first place.

  7. Aris: Is that pronounced NACK-uh-dish? I spent a little time in Louisiana once and I thought that’s the pronunciation I heard. Just wondered if it’s different in TX.

    Well, MarcParis, I don’t know. To me “degift” makes me think the next word you’re going to say is “gab.” 🙂

  8. dhenderson says:

    martha said:

    Aris: Is that pronounced NACK-uh-dish?

    It’s pronounced nack-uh-DOUGH-chuss. There’s a great joke about the place. A couple is driving through Nacogdoches on a long car trip and they decide to stop for lunch. In the restaurant they ask the blonde behind the counter to slowly pronounce the name of the place they’re in so they can understand it. She replies, “Burrr-gerrr Kiiiiing.”


  9. MarcParis says:

    Well, MarcParis, I don’t know. To me “degift” makes me think the next word you’re going to say is “gab.”

    Well, I imagine that in order to degift, you’re gonna need de gab…

  10. mtlwriterguy says:

    Couldn’t help myself! Here are a few more “giver” alternatives:

    – Boomerang giver
    – Rebound giver
    – Vacuum giver
    – Anti-gravity giver
    – Antimatter giver
    – Mirror giver
    – Bouncer (in the sense of “bounced” e-mail)
    – Bouncebaby (ditto)

    Stop me now! I could do this all day!


    Mark S.

  11. Ian says:

    Just a pronunciation FYI about the name Mackay: punk icon Ian Mackaye of Fugazi and Minor Threat pronounces his name mak-EYE with a long I for the last syllable. Assuming that’s also the pronunciation of “Mackay” it’s even less of a stretch to get to “McCoy.”

    disclaimer: I am not the same Ian 🙂

  12. Yes, the pronunciation of McCoy, Mackay, and Mackay are variable, which is why there’s no real reason not to believe that Mackay could easily become McCoy. Those spellings are probably pronunciation-derived rather than the pronunciation deriving from the spelling.

  13. Kelly says:

    The woman on this episode wanted an equivalent less offensive phrase than Indian Giver
    Based on The Synonym Finder, I wonder if the following would work…

    Don’t be a….

    worm – from worm out of

    Or perhaps the child could be called a…


    Or perhaps … Euro-giver

    Lastly, the politically correct….

    Native American Conferrer


  14. Rob says:

    When I was growing up we had a family word that we said but never wrote, so I’m not sure how to spell it. I guess it would be “wee” or “wi”. Pronounced like “we.” It means, generally, “Get out of the way, I can’t see the TV.” My brother coined it before he could really talk, I think. When he wanted to see something like the TV, he would just go “Weeeeee!” in this whiny, demanding tone. Over time, it just became a word we used. Only in the very specific context of watching TV and needing someone to move. It was an imperative, a command of sorts. It wasn’t until high school that I really realized that it wasn’t a real word.

    So, there you go.

  15. mal says:

    Two ‘family language’ items to share – Rob’s posting about “wee” as an imperative while watching TV reminded me of my first example.

    When watching TV together my parents and siblings and I used the code “X.B.” when we arose from a (usually prime) seating spot that we wanted to save after our return from the kitchen or bathroom. I believe my dad’s siblings also used this code and I don’t know that any of them know its origin. When standing up to temporarily leave the room, one simply said “X.B.” and it was honored by all, without question. There were 8 of us in the house and with a small TV room it was a civilized, efficient, and effective way to prevent squabbles over couch spots versus the floor. We still find ourselves saying it at family gatherings though any would likely gladly share a favored seat without fighting over it now!

    This is more a “secret language of couples” example than “families” – When our (now adult) son was first learning to talk he babbled his own phrases that to us seemed nonsense but clearly to him meant something. One phrase that we came to recognize had a kind of “call and response” cadence – “DITT-dough” . . . (pause) . . . “BREW-vah” – with him saying both parts. Over time his use of the phrase faded but my husband and I still find ourselves using that phrase as a sort of verbal “touching base” – if one says “dit-doh”, the other responds “bru-vah”. No further conversation is required.

    This is fascinating! So glad this topic came up on the show, I’ll look for Paul Dickson’s book.

  16. Paradox says:

    My son’s vocabulary always outstripped his diction in his early years. It was a great source of family slang.

    My wife and I still refer to “noo-noos,” his early pronounciation of “noodles.”

    For a long time, we used his pronounciation “fraction” as a code-word substitute for “distraction” (a favorite parenting tactic of ours).

    Perhaps his greatest mis-proununciation, however, grew out of his early love for dump-trucks. The terminal ‘p” on the end of dump was usually dropped and before he could say the “tr” he would substitute an “f.” Imagine my chagrin when we walked out on our front porch and saw a neighbor getting into his pick-up (which was plenty close enough to a dump-truck for a two-year-old). Justin pointed and shouted — with great emphasis and excitement — “DUMP-TRUCK!!!” It took a bit of explaining to assure the neighbor that he was referring to the vehicle, not the driver (made more difficult by the fact that what actually came out of my boy’s mouth was a fairly accurate assessment!). Anyway, we have continued to this day using the term “Dump-Truck” as an epithet for those who rate it.

  17. Sam Watkins says:

    An alternative to using “Indian Giver”

    How about the saying, “You can’t give a dog a bone and expect to get it back.” ?

    Better yet, just refer to the guilty person as a “rescinderella”

  18. strehlow says:


    Those are those little things you find in the toilet or diaper. When I was about 12, as I left the bathroom, my mother asked me I had a “BM.” I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

  19. She was asking about the British Museum, right?

  20. strehlow says:

    Grant Barrett said:

    She was asking about the British Museum, right?

    Oh yes, that’s it. Certainly. I’m not sure just how I would “have a British Museum” (yikes, that would hurt). It would require a potent laxative to pass that.

  21. Paradox says:

    strehlow said:

    I’m not sure just how I would “have a British Museum”

    Wow, that’s worse than “having a cow.” (although my understanding is that the later is more related to giving birth than to . . . er . . . uh . . . ya-know)

  22. cdevine says:

    One of our family words is “giddy-gump”, which refers to the turn signal in a car. That’s what a small child called it (many years ago) because of the sound, and it just stuck.

  23. theBB says:

    I just wanted to chime in with another story about the phrase “break a leg”. I know of at least one Middle Eastern language which uses the phrase “break the devil’s leg” to wish good luck, usually when somebody is about to give some kind of public performance, a concert or maybe a presentation. Actually, until I listened to your last show, I’ve never thought of this as a case of saying the opposite of what is really being wished. I have always presumed the leg in question was the devil’s, as the phrase is “break a leg”, not “break your leg.” I thought, maybe the devil is not named, because the well wisher is not supposed to wake “the one who shall not be named” to the plan. 🙂

  24. Interesting, theBB. Which language is that?

  25. Christina Frost says:

    I thought instead of using the term indian giver you could use the political term flip flopper. It is almost the same!

  26. Pab Sungenis says:

    I had sent this to the show’s E-Mail box, and Grant suggested I post it here, so here’s my contribution for family language:

    My family’s favorite one was “bacciagalloop.”

    Throughout my childhood my grandparents always used to refer to anyone they didn’t know the name of as “Mr. Bacciagaloop,” and it also became the common name for any fictitious person. (“You didn’t knock over the lamp? I guess Mr. Bacciagaloop did it?”)

    For the longest time, I thought that it was a word my family had created, until I heard it used on an episode of “The Golden Girls” when I was in high school. That sent me off to do some research on the name, and I discovered it was actually a very common slang term in Italy, used to refer (in a derogatory sense) to anyone from the hill areas of Northern Italy. Apparently, it became popular in America because of a Louis Prima song called “Bacciagallop (Makes Love On The Stoop).”

    So now, with the mingling of Jewish and Italian slang in my household, we have Mr. Bacciagaloop carrying his whoseythingy in his comesechiama when he takes a trip to wheresitz. It makes for a very musical, if not easily understood, private argot.

  27. LeoKulonosen says:

    My father used a word as a place name when nosy neighbors would ask us where we were going. He would use it as an oblique way of saying, “None of your business.” Once when pressed for an explanation he said, “It’s where they sharpen the oats.” I never saw the word written down, but I always assumed it was Hungarian since that was his father’s native language. Imagine my surprise when I Googled the word as I assume it would be spelled – ‘kukacim’. I never found any likely candidate in Hungarian but this is interesting. Cuckoo in Hungarian is kakukk. It actually makes sense that it is Czech rather than Hungarian.

    It would be pronounced ku-ka-tyim.
    “Prelet Nad Kukacim Hnizdem” translates to “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

  28. MarcNaimark says:

    MarcParis said:


    Maybe “disgifting” is too strong. But there could also be “ungifting”.

    I’m still sticking with “degifting”. And I thought about the noun “degift”, and an expression, “the degift of love”. That would be when your partner breaks up with you, saying s/he never loved you in the first place.

    For a real-life use of “ungifting”, see Dear Prudence on

    Dear Prudence,
    I spend a good amount of money on things (clothes, books, toys) for my niece and nephew. My intention was that they use them until they grow out of them, and then I would get them back for my future kids. Every time I give new items, I politely remind my sister-in-law that I would “please like this back.” Since my niece was born three years ago, I have been given only one item back. I have since discovered that she sells most of the things her kids outgrow. I understand they need to sell them to afford new clothes, but I am not made of money, either. How do I remind her that I want things returned, other than writing “Aunty wants this” on each piece?

    —Not Made of Money

    Dear Not,
    There’s nothing more gracious than giving a gift with “Aunty wants this” scrawled across it. Re-gifting is a useful and economical practice, but you’ve taken it to a new level: ungifting. Since your sister-in-law is busy raising two children, she doesn’t have time to keep track of what outgrown toys or clothes to return to you for your yet-unconceived children. If you resent the amount you spend on gifts for the kids, then give them less. But when you give, consider it gone.


  29. Lou Crosby says:

    My dad often employed funny names which I think he made up, e.g., “Billy McSquaddlebuster” or “Herman Ginkwhistle.” The way he used them always brought a laugh. My aunt tells me that he had a special name for me (the firstborn); he called me his “little skaboochie.” What I wonder is whether that’s another of his made-up names or whether it has some meaning in some language or other. Can you help?

    P.S. This is the first time I’ve tried posting anything on a site; I hope I’ve done it correctly! If not, I hope you can respond in some way or other. Take pity on me; I’m an old lady and struggling to deal with technology!

  30. Lou, welcome! You did fine. 🙂

  31. John Dalbec says:

    It seems to me that “instantly” means “right away” and “instantaneously” means “in (or during) an instant”, but not necessarily right now.

  32. leecrocker says:

    Instant vs. Instantaneous:

    I realize that lexicographers can’t be expected to follow all the latest in cognitive science, but there are times when a little interdisciplinary wandering is useful, as books like Stephen Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” show us (or even Lakoff, if taken with a grain of salt). The peculiarities of how we use words can often reveal how our brain deals with certain ideas, and vice versa.

    In this case, it’s pretty clear: we think of events in two ways: as a _change of state_, or as a _process_. If I could put graphics in a forum post, I’d draw a picture of a horizontal line dropping and continuing on at a low level for the first, and a line dropping for a distance and then rising back up for the second.

    “Instant” and “instantly” are used with state-changes, to describe a transition that is sharp and bright, rather than smooth. “Instantaneous” and “instantaneously” are used for events that take place over a duration, but for which the duration is very short. Thus can one instantly recognize or regret, because those are a change of state; but an auto crash or a game-winning play might be instantaneous, but not instant. Of course there’s some interplay in that any state-change event can also be described as a _transition_ over a duration, so you could lose your headache either instantly (change sharply from headache to no-headache state) or instantaneously (having the pain subside quickly). And if you drank a shot instantaneously, the glass would be instantly empty. 🙂

  33. Thanks, Lee. You do raise two good points. My answers were informed by looking at a deep corpus that includes subject and object relationships and I did not look directly into the words as indicating states or processes—I might have, but we do try to keep the on-air stuff as non-wonky as we can and still get our points across. Whether we will ever have the time to keep even lightly abreast of cognitive linguistics depends upon whether we will ever have more than 24 hours in a day.

    By the way, although Pinker’s work is familiar to me and I appreciate very much his efforts to bridge the academic-lay gap, I don’t hold his work in very high regard. His work is generally sound but he falls down on the details. Some of the errors that fall within my areas of expertise in The Language Instinct and the The Stuff of Thought are evidence of slapdash scholarship and call into question the parts of his books that do not fall within my areas of expertise.

  34. Paul Moore says:

    You both have such bright smiles in your voices, and a refreshing depth of intelligence in your answers!

    The other day I was talking to my son about a garage door opener that I was replacing. I said that the mechanism had been ramikacked. He laughed and asked what that meant. I grew up in rural Indiana, north of Indianapolis. My father was a toolmaker and often applied that term to a broken mechanical device that would require an enormous amount of effort to repair, often exceeding the value of the device. For example, putting a manual transmission into reverse when travelling forward would ramikack the transmission. I always thought it was a commonly used word. Any idea as to the origin? Another word my father used that he treated as uncommon and humorous was “smearcase”, referring to cottage cheese. Is it possible that ramikack shares a common background with smearcase?


  35. dilettante says:

    “Schmierkase” is widely known. Do a search and you will turn up a number of recipes, for example this one.

  36. leecrocker says:

    Some of [ Pinker’s ] errors that fall within my areas of expertise in The Language Instinct and the The Stuff of Thought . . .

    I realize it’s off-topic and might waste even more of your time, but I’d be interested in hearing about those sometime.

  37. Tommy says:

    I’ve been using “de-gifting” ever since that Seinfeld episode. They also used the word “re-gifting” (giving away something that has been given to you as a gift), and I find both words extremely useful.

    Grant – I’d like to comment on the “Dancing in two weddings” phrase you talked about. It’s a phrase widely used in Hebrew, and it means “Having your cake and eating it too”, or trying to do two incompatible things at once.

  38. Kathi Cann says:

    Kelly said:

    The woman on this episode wanted an equivalent less offensive phrase than Indian Giver
    Based on The Synonym Finder, I wonder if the following would work…

    Don’t be a….

    worm – from worm out of

    Or perhaps the child could be called a…


    Or perhaps … Euro-giver

    Lastly, the politically correct….

    Native American Conferrer


    I always thought that the phrase “Indian giver” had to do with the way the white people treated the Indians. We gave them land and then took it back when we decided we needed it (or it was better land than someplace else we could send them), therefore I did not consider the phrase as a slur against the Native Americans. Am I the only one who took it this way?

  39. Kathi Cann says:

    Some of my fondest memories from childhood revolve around family reunions. We always played games way into the night and a favorite was “Password” from a TV game where one of a set of partners would give a one word clue and the other tried to guess what word he/she was trying to convey. Points were awarded based on how many clues had been given. The adults would usually pair up with the children until we kids figured out that, being on the same wavelink, we did better playing with each other. On one such occasion the word was “derby”. The expected definition might be “hat”, “sombrero” and the like or even “Kentucky.” At that time there was a TV personality named Durwood Kirby. My cousin and I had the first shot at it. Without any other clues being given, I said “Kurwood”. Never missing a beat, my cousin said “derby” leaving our parents wondering in amazement at their child prodigies. Now, 50 years later, never does a family gathering come and go without someone saying “Kurwood” and getting the immediate response of “derby.”

  40. tyler says:

    thanks mark. this has been bothering me for the last 10 minutes quite a bit.

  41. kierae says:

    I would love to hear this subject, “The Secret Language of Families,” covered on the show again.  I'm sure there are more words to be covered.

    For example, I just discovered that at least one of the words I grew up with is, shockingly, listed in Merriam-Webster.  I ate slumgullion at least once a month and I have yet to meet anyone else who enjoyed the experience of all the leftovers from the refrigerator being thrown in a pot and cooked together.  Leftover spaghetti, peas, ham, chili, just clean out the fridge and put it all in the dutch oven.

    Another word that continues to confound my many dictionary searches is pronounced PE-sha.  My Mom used it to mean “a woman's privates.”  Mom grew up in a multi-ethnic apartment complex so I've searched Italian and Yiddish words for that area of the body to no avail.

  42. Stoppel says:

    Christina Frost said:

    I thought instead of using the term indian giver you could use the political term flip flopper. It is almost the same!

    I would suggest ‘Moccasinner’

  43. Stoppel: Nice!

    kierae, yes “family words” is always a good topic. Did your family, btw, have a term for the cardboard tube that’s left after a roll of TP is used up?

    And Kathi: I somehow missed your earlier Kurwood Dirby story — I’d have gotten that one, too! Now if someone could just sing me the music they played when the Password players changed seats. That one’s been bugging me for years. Whenever I ask about this, people always mistakenly hum the “Final Jeopardy” song instead.

  44. brstjohn says:

    One of my favorite family words came from my grandmother, and it’s what we say sometimes instead of “God Bless You.” Of course I don’t know how to spell it, but phonetically it sounds something like Bougitsmozee. My grandmother is Croatian, but we’re not sure if it is Croatian or just something fun she came up with!
    Thanks for this show!!!

  45. Thanks for the kind words, brstjohn. Is your grandmother’s expression something she’d say after someone sneezed?

  46. brstjohn says:

    Yes, and now we all say it after someone sneezes.