Small Talk: Real or not, some words are just funny

Teenagers are never wrong.  I know this because when my kids were teens, they subjected me to long-winded arguments in which logic played very little part and I never won.

One day, rather than admit their vocabularies were a bit lacking, my teens accused me of making up words. The only time I have ever created nonsense words was to replace my stevedore-like cursing, so this time I held my ground.

I might be guilty of having hidden food I didn’t want them to immediately devour, fibbing about how many errands we had to run or been a little vague about how much yard work there was to do, but words are where I draw the line. Do not throw shade on my word choice. I have lousy eyesight, thin hair, a waning memory and I cannot add numbers in my head, so I place much of my leftover pride in my vocabulary.

My children occasionally benefited from it, as I berated them regularly with some of my favorite quotations. For instance, they knew, long before they hit high school English class, what “throwing pearls before swine” meant. It was one of the few remaining ways I could occasionally impress my children. Then just like that, it became a source of high amusement. “Pride goeth before the fall.”

It began when I foolishly decided to try and get my teens to give me some feedback on my look. Right away they were puzzled.

“Your ‘look’?” they chimed. “You have a look?” That stung, but I persevered, because I truly do harbor a horror of dressing in a manner that is unseemly for my age and mom status. So I tried to describe to them the looks I was trying to avoid.

I wanted to look casually classic, I said. I wanted to look like a woman growing old gracefully, but, I said, “I don’t want to look dowdy.”

“Dowdy? What does dowdy mean?” they asked.

Oh, I replied, you know. Frumpy.

My son nearly fell off the kitchen chair, howling with laughter, screaming, “Frumpy? That’s can’t be a real word either!” I insisted it was, albeit relegated to the vocabulary dust heap as newer slang came along. It is a throwback of undetermined age, but I think it is almost onomatopoetic, and so I love it and won’t let it go easily.

“Frumpy is a character on ‘Sesame Street,’ isn’t it?” my son chortled.

“No, I think it’s the eighth dwarf,” my daughter cackled.

Trying to contain my own laughter, I bravely continued, calmly insisting that frumpy was indeed a word. It was. I explained, sort of a combination of dumpy and frowzy.

“Frowzy?” they cried, again splitting with glee. “That cannot be a real word either. You’re just making these up.”

I protested roundly, but the game was lost. I never really got any solid information about whether I looked presentable or not, but I was laughing so hard, it really didn’t matter anymore. For the next hour, I got lots of creative suggestions. “Actually, Mom, I think you need to avoid looking frizzpy,” one would say. “Yes and by all means, don’t let yourself get froobly,” the other would add. “Or drablish.”

Yuk, yuk. Everybody’s a comedian. And that is why we all survived their teen years. They never let me take my vocabulary or myself too seriously.

If I can’t do anything about looking flarbish, at least I have genuine laugh lines.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer and unrepentant logophile. Contact her at

1 Comment
  1. Mary Kay Morrison 11 months ago

    Great article. You would be interested in our Humor organization – AATH. Our conference is in San Diego-April 12-15th. The AATH mission is to study, practice and promote healthy humor and laughter. Our unique Humor Academy is a 3-year program that takes place annually at our conferences. It continues throughout the year with monthly ZOOM meetings. We have had almost 40 students complete our CHP (Certified Humor Professional) Program since our initial program began in 2010. We are pioneers in the field of humor studies and we recognize that few institutions offer programs in humor studies.

    We currently offer graduate credit through Portland State University-although we are currently exploring other graduate credit programs and potential online courses. This year we offer CEU and CME credits of up to 20.5 hours.

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