Most of us have words and expressions that are special to our family, and that phenomenon is known as ‘Familyspeak’.

We all know Mum’s the word but what about words that are Mum’s? ‘Familyspeak’ is the subject of an Australia-wide search by researchers at the Australian National University (ANU).

For example: In the childhood family of CW editor, Julie Samaras, coathangers were known as “hanger-coats” and grasshoppers as “hopper-grasses”, while “eleven-nineteen” referred to the advanced age of an adult. These were all coined following some cute, toddler bloopers.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC) is collecting the expressions and words unique to families, including new lingo developing during the COVID-19 pandemic, for their second annual appeal for contributions to the Australian National Dictionary. Think “elbow-bumps” and “footshakes” for COVID-safe greetings, “covihug” for a safe embrace and “isogames” for activities played in isolation.

In 2019, the ANDC launched their annual appeal by calling for nicknames for places across Australia, which garnered nominations such as The Gong for Wollongong, Gungas for Gungahlin, and Tuggers for Tuggeranong. 

“Contributions from the public are a very important way of alerting us to new words,” ANDC Director Dr Amanda Laugesen said. 

“Even though not all these terms will make it into the dictionary, once we’ve researched them, we’ll keep a record of all of them and they will form part of our ongoing archive of the language used by Australians.” 

Dr Laugesen said most of us have words and expressions that are special to our family.

“They might be expressions that one member of the family uses – for example, my father-in-law has a lot of these, such as saying someone who doesn’t have any money ‘doesn’t have two pennies to jingle on a tombstone’ and ‘seven pennies of god help me’ to describe someone who’s not well dressed.” 

‘Familyspeak’ can also come from a number of different sources. 

“They might be variants of traditional expressions or a different meaning for a common word or phrase,” she said. 

“Sometimes they are a euphemism for a less acceptable word, for example, ‘oh cheese’ (for oh Jesus), or they might be derived from wordplay, like ‘washdisher’ (for dishwasher).  

“Children’s words for things, such as ‘wobbellies’ (for wallabies), are another source. In some cases, these are words or expressions that were once more widely known but are now only retained within a small number of families.” 

To be part of the 2020 appeal, visit the ANDC Facebook Page or find @ozworders on Twitter. You can also add your word or expression to the Centre’s Word Box feature  or share with us in the comments below.

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