The Secret Languages of Families

The following is by editor Kara Fleck.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed my toddler for my Rockin’ Granola blog.  Lucy has recently had a language explosion and with that has come all of the charming mispronunciations and adorable “toddler speak” that go along with being a bubbly two year old.

The post sparked a few comments from other parents about their children’s mispronunciations as toddlers and how some of those phrases have worked their way into the fabric of the family language.

The more families I talk to, I find that, more often than not, each one has their own set of code words, mispronunciations, and inside jokes that are specific to their family.

It is always interesting to me to find out where these words and phrases come from and how they have evolved within each family.

Mispronunciations: Who is Influencing Whom?

We’re probably all familiar with those baby phrases and cute toddler mispronunciations.  It seems that inevitably, a few of those phrases and words stick with a family and we all end up adopting the child’s way of saying certain things – sometimes even long past toddlerhood.

Though of course,  I do endeavor to teach my children the proper way to pronounce words, inevitably I will catch myself asking the kids if they want an “abocado” (avocado) or “bumpa chips” (taco chips).  Sometimes I wonder who is influencing whom!

Practical Reasons

Sometimes secret family languages develop for practical reasons. In my family, we practice child-led weaning and my shy toddlers have usually come up with their own secret code word for asking to nurse when we are out in public or have company.

I know another family who has a code word for when someone needs to use the restroom, which is so much nicer than a child blurting out, “I have to pee!”

Having a code word or phrase can take some of the potential embarrassment out of situations for a child and still ensure that needs get met.

Made Up Words, Nicknames, Jokes

A silly word or phrase can become part of a family’s language, too.  Once, a few years ago, I was talking and tripped over my words.  Jillian, my oldest, was around age four at the time.  She heard me and told me I had had a “blah-da-blah-da” meaning that my tongue was tied up.  We giggled over that and, to this day, when someone in our family trips over their words, someone else will holler “blah-da-blah-da!”

I have nicknames for my kids and, as they are getting older, they are developing nicknames for each other, too.  While a mean nickname will not be tolerated at our house, I like to see the terms of endearment and variations on their proper names that they come up with for each other.  Max has called Jillian “Snee” for almost as long as he could talk and they all tease their Daddy and call him “Bear” (as in “snores like a bear.”)

Families can develop inside jokes, too.  To this day, if I told them I had a “clam chowder” moment, I can guarantee that my brothers, sister, and my parents would know exactly what I meant (and, no, it doesn’t mean eating soup).

Tender Moments

When my kids are having what my swim coach used to call a “bumpy day” they need a reminder that they are still loved no matter what.  I have a little song I sing them:

I love you good or bad.

Happy or sad,

I still love you

My nine year old, who sometimes considers herself too big for hugs and singing (but not very often, thankfully) might ask me on those days, “Good or bad, mama?” and I answer her, “happy or sad” and that is enough to convey the message and affirm that she is loved.

I’ve always loved Megan’s family’s concept of an “emergency hug.”

I believe that these code words and unique family languages can be part of what bonds a family. Woven into individual family cultures, these phrases and jokes become threads in the cord that ties us together; another family tradition.

Does your family have its own language? Secret code word or phrase? Inside jokes that you share? What about nicknames?

About Kara

Kara Fleck is the editor of Simple Kids. She is a small town mama, writer, knitter, bookworm, and hooligan. Kara lives in Indiana with her husband Christopher and their four children Jillian, Max, Lucy, and Amelia. You can find more of her writing at

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  1. We do indeed have a “family language” I was going to write a post on it a while back with se7en phrases… until I realized that we had a vast family dictionary at hand!!! We also have words for nursing and ummm dare I say discipline… There is nothing worse than going out and folks saying to their kids “don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that”…I just say our code word once and my kids know to stop or they will embarrass themselves!!! And then there is another word for “If you you do that again we are leaving…” Funny we all speak the same language and I have only had to use that word once and then follow through!!! So yes I don’t think I could parent without “our family language.”

  2. It’s so true. We’ve adopted several mispronunciations in to our daily language. The biggest one is boony in place of remote control. We don’t even notice we do it until we’re around someone else and they look at us with a confused look on their face.
    Angela´s latest post: Kids and Money is a hot topic!

  3. yes I do with my son. for nursing, how he pronounced his name when he first starting talking. haven’t come up with code language yet for behavior.

    I do like your song. I’ve started repeating the words from the book “I love you forever” when he asks if I’m mad at him when he’s done something wrong. though I do tell him if I’m mad, I make sure he knows I always love him.

    growing up my mother didn’t allow anyone to call us anything but our given name but in high school we all gave each other nicknames and that is what we use now as adults, more often than not.
    Nina´s latest post: trust yourself 28

  4. My mom loves picking up the kids mispronounciations. Pasketti = spaghetti for as long as I can remember, so for all I know that one was mine. As we all grew up she stopped using them so much, but now she’s picking up my daughter’s with much joy. Anyone want to play on the jumpoline?
    I’m just as ‘guilty’ … we say ‘sucky’ instead of pacifier. And actually, while calling my husband ‘papa’ is not so unusual, the fact that we called him daddy up until my daughter started talking and called him ‘papa’ instead for no apparent reason is. Somebody asked the other day if Olivia will call him papa then, too. I guess so, we all do now, I don’t see why not! Even the younger cousins/friends of my daughter call/called him papa because they just figured it was his name.
    I like the idea of using a code word for discipline…
    lorchick @ ON{thelaundry}LINE´s latest post: Baby Giggles

  5. My husband spent two years in the Phillippines before marrying me and now speaks Tagalog fluently. He has taught me some Tagalog too and so we mix in quite a few Tagalog words with our English and even use Tagalog for nicknames. Our son is Maliit (MA_LEE_EET) (little) and I am Bulaklak (flower) and my husband is Halimaw (beast). It’s kind of fun.

  6. The things kids say sometimes! It is funny that some seem to “stick” and other don’t. For the longest time my daughter said “For the love of a pete!” instead of “for the love of pete!” and that has stuck. Also, when she was first learning to talk Grandpa ended up Peapa…that has stuck so now her Grandpa is forever Peapa!

  7. Jennnifer says:

    My mother and I had a secret code for “I love you” which I recently shared with my 5-year-old. Our code was three little taps with a finger on the arm or hand means “I love you.” My little boy was not quite satisfied with that and now our code is three taps and then you made a heart with your fingers.

  8. Wow Jennnifer, we have almost the same family code. With my parents and brothers we started a “three squeezes” system, so three squeezes if we’re holding hands, three squeezes on the shoulder as you walk by, etc… Even now on the phone we sometimes end a conversation by saying “Three Squeezes.” Of course, I have passed this on to my husband and we are now using it with our daughter.
    My daughter called my grandfather (her great-grandfather) Be-Boppy when she was first learning to talk. He passed away a couple of week ago and at the funeral home the flowers from the great-grandchildren had a ribbon on them that said “For Our Be-Boppy.” Even once she learned to say Great Grampie – he still referred to himself as Be-Boppy, so she went back to calling him that too!

  9. Elizabeth says:

    My entire family and most of my childhood friends know me as Chivet (chee-VET), which is a mispronunciation of Elizabeth (in Spanish). It’s so much my name that my little sister didn’t know my name was Elizabeth until she was in middle school, and some of my cousins didn’t know my first name until we became Facebook friends!

  10. I feel like my whole family has been influenced by the way my youngest child speaks. Things are “ho hunny” – so funny, We wash our hands with hope (soap). It goes on and on. . .
    teresa´s latest post: Pecan Pie Muffins

  11. Cynthia Coffey says:

    Our family has Ghanaian, Philippine, and Ethiopian. “Chop” for food, a bear named Lumpia, “wendom” for brother. And, “fuffin” for muffin, from the newest family member.
    We took all of the kids to have their picture made together. The photographer asked each kid their name at the beginning of the session, but we realized halfway through that noone was calling each other by their actual names! Manong, Wendom, Jelly and Sunny confused the poor guy. :)

  12. we have many, but the silliest is our word for gummy fruit snacks. the first time my oldest son (now 4 1/2) had fruit snacks, they were shaped like Finding Nemo characters. so he started calling them “Fruit Meemos.” well, we couldn’t always have the Nemo kind, so the non-Nemo-shaped ones were dubbed “Diff’rent Fruit Meemos.” we’ve since tried (half-heartedly) to switch to calling them “gummys” like everyone else, but Diff’rent Fruit Meemos they remain :-)

  13. Blair/wisecraft says:

    What a great discussion. Our family has so many. Probably our most-used one currently is “green book”. It stems from a long standing joke that Peter, my husband, is a “low talker” and when he says things I don’t quite catch, I tell him what it sounded like to my ears. Green book was one of those times. We have used it in family conversations so much since then! Makes us laugh every time. Recently, Peter took the kids to a bookstore to treat them to a “green book night”. A booknof their choice as long as it was mostly green.
    Blair/wisecraft´s latest post: bike sport

  14. When our kids were growing up, our family loved what we call “the family sandwich,” basically a group hug with Mom and Dad on the outside and kiddos on the inside. One of us would call out “family sandwich” during an appropriate moment and we would gather in the middle of the room for a big hug, talking and laughing about what kind of a sandwich we were this time (PBJ, pickles and olives, pepperoni and honey, whatever!) This was easy with 2 kids when they were little.

    Our family has grown (“kiddos” now are 32 and 30) and expanded (with a daughter-in-love!), so we’ve morphed our “family sandwich” into the “family donut,” where we all stand in a circle, toes in, and arms around each other – pretending to be a cruller or an old fashioned!

    By whatever name, family hugs are fabulous!

  15. My husband’s step-grandmother was known as Ahno. I assumed that was her own name, if unusual, as even her letters were addressed “Ahno.” It wasn’t until her funeral a few years ago that the youngest of my husband’s aunts recounted that “Ahno” was as close as she could get to ” Elenor” as a small child. My daughter has already continued the tradition by calling her grandmothers “Mimi”, instead of Amy or Tamie!

  16. I was just thinking about that today- my son started saying ‘thank you’ instead of kank koo and I caught myself wanting to tell him to say kank koo instead :)

    We extended nurse, but this boy is not shy! He quickly changed from ‘neh’ to ‘nurse you!’ when he thought it might work better. I like the potty code word idea :)
    Cara´s latest post: Our Family on GAPS- What We&8217re Doing- What We&8217ve Done

  17. I love this post! Just today I was working on a post for my own blog about one of our family’s “inside jokes”: the word ‘pants’. I won’t bother to explain it here, but my preschoolers dissolve into fits of laughter whenever the joke is made. In a family with 5 kids ages 4, 3, 3, 19 months, and 4 months you can imagine we have a lot of nicknames for things. One of my favorite family traditions is the “air hug”. It started when one of my children wanted a hug from the back seat of our van while we were driving. I reached my arms up and gave her a hug in the air since I couldn’t get to her. (I wasn’t driving, of course!) Air hugs also work when hands are especially messy and someone still needs the reassurance of a hug.
    Anna´s latest post: Use Your Noodle


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