Why We Speak More Weirdly at Home

When people share a space, their collective experience can sprout its own vocabulary, known as a familect.

Many of us have a secret language, the private lexicon of our home life. Perhaps you have a nickname from a parent that followed you into adulthood. Maybe you have an old joke or a shared reference to a song. Sometimes known as familects, these invented words, pet names, in-jokes, and personal memes swirl and emerge from the mess of lives spent in close quarters. During the pandemic, we’ve spent dramatically more time in those quarters, and our in-group slang has changed accordingly.

Cynthia Gordon, an associate linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of Making Meanings, Creating Family, has spent much of her working life in the strange land of family discourse. “Any group of people that has extended contact over time and sees itself as distinctive is going to have some specialized uses of language,” Gordon told me. “Listening to recordings of other families is like being immersed in a different world.”

Over time, these terms may become sticky in your inner circle.

When people use familect terms, they reinforce the stories, rituals, and memories that hold them together as a group. “Every time they use that phrase, they are pointing to all the previous uses of it,” Gordon said. “It reaffirms their ‘familyness’ in a way. It re-creates their relationship.”

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