Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Lots of homes have so-called "family words;" made-up words that have meaning to a particular group of people but no one else. In our family we had the word "grunny" which meant, well... poop. Why we didn't just say poop, I have no idea. Maybe I, as a toddler, came up with it. Maybe my mom invented it, as a nice way to refer to doody. Who can say? The precise etymology of grunny is lost in the mists of time.
Grunny was a versatile word that could be used as both noun and verb. It was used to describe feces of course, as in "Hey, there's grunny on the floor!" It could also be used to describe the act of defecating, as in "I have to grunny." There was even a past tense of grunny, as in, "I grunnied twice yesterday." One could even use it as an epithet, as in, "You're a big grunny head!" Yes, grunny was quite a word alright.
I wasn't the only one who used the word; my parents and even my grandparents said it was well, so I quite naturally assumed that grunny was a bona fide word in the English language. As a toddler with little or no access to the outside world, I had no idea it existed only in my family.
Then came the fateful year I entered first grade and the public school system. That's when I found out the terrible truth.
I was an average kid in school; I wasn't the most popular, nor was I hated or shunned like some poor souls in my class. I was just sort of there. We were having recess indoors that day, due to inclement weather. I was playing with the kids in my class when I realized I had to go to the restroom. I said, "I'll be right back, I have to grunny!" Cue the "needle scratching a record" sound effect, as the kids all stared at me. Finally one of them said, "What did you say?" I told them again that I had to grunny. As soon as I said it the second time, the horrible realization descended upon me, like a suffocating dry cleaner bag, the kind marked, "This is NOT a toy". Cold and pitiless realization filled my soul as I realized there was no grunny. It was a made up word for babies, foisted upon me by my parents, who, though they were miles away, probably sensed what was happening that very minute and were laughing and cackling away at my humiliation.
Of course the other kid immediately started shouting, "Hey guys, get this! Canada just said he had to grunny!" The news spread like wildfire throughout the classroom and the derisive laughter got louder and louder. I stood there motionless, the way Charlie Brown stands amidst a background of upper case "HA HA HAs." I didn't know what to do. Should I swing my fists to stop the laughter? I was an only child until age seven and the only kid in our entire neighborhood; I didn't know from fighting. Should I run? To where? We weren't allowed to leave the classroom without permission. I could have ran and hid in the art supply cabinet, but that would have probably resulted in further humiliation as the other kids locked me inside. Should I curl up like an armadillo and let the taunts bounce from my scaly hide as my mind receded into a happier place? No, I needed to keep my eye on this bunch, as they were prone to administering wedgies. I ended up halfheartedly making a rather unconvincing argument that grunny was indeed a real word, in spite of my new found knowledge that it definitely was not.
Eventually the commotion attracted the teacher's attention and she came over to find out what the ruckus was all about. When the other kids told her, she tried, most likely out of pity, to take my side and tell the other kids that many families make up their own words and there was nothing wrong with that. I wasn't reassured though, as her mask of calm authority cracked just enough to see that she was trying to stifle a braying donkey laugh. "I see," I thought as my little eyes narrowed and I shot her a steely glance, which she caught as she turned away, abashed. "I cannot even rely on the authority figures for protection. I am alone in this urban jungle."
For the rest of the day our lessons were punctuated with the sound of nearby classmates telling each other that by George they thought they had to grunny, or was that grunny they smelled wafting through the air? It was an interminable afternoon.
Dinner at our house that night was strained, with a side dish of tension. I ate perfunctorily, calmly picking at my food, waiting for my mother to ask the question she asked every evening: "Did anything interesting happen at school today?"
"Oh, the usual," I replied, in a cold and emotionless monotone. "We learned some spelling words. A few historical dates. An art project."
"T-that's nice," said my mother, unsettled by the soullessness in my voice. "Anything else?" she asked.
"No, nothing," I said, seemingly putting an end to the topic. "Oh, there was one thing," I said, the same way Columbo toyed with his suspects. "I learned something today that might interest you. Did you know that GRUNNY IS NOT A WORD!!?!?!????"
"W-what?" stammered my mother. "Of c-course it is! Don't be silly."
"Oh, don't pretend," I hissed. "You knew it was a made up word for babies, but you never told me. You let me waltz saying it all these years because you thought it was cute. You could have at least told me the truth before I started school and blurted it out in front of the entire class!"
My father, his attention momentarily diverted from the evening news on TV, eyed me and asked, "You said it at school? HAW HAW! What a little dope!"
"Thank you for that analysis, Father," I said coldly. "What other fake words have you taught me, hmm? Please tell me before I go to school and embarrass myself again. Is 'doorknob' a real word? What about 'sandal?" 'Butterscotch?' 'Repossess?' 'Spoonerism?' 'Tincture?' Is this even English I'm speaking?"
"All right, shut yer yap," said my father. "I'm tryin' to hear the TV."
"Of course, father," I answered. "In fact, may I be excused? I have to go to the bathroom and... what do you call it? I can't quite think of the word... 'Gunny? Grubby?' Gosh, if only there were a word for what I have to do."
I gave my parents the silent treatment for the rest of the night and sat brooding in my room. Eventually my classmates forgot about the "Grunny Incident," and my humiliation became a distant memory. But from then on I took anything my parents told me with a large grain of salt.