Maybe it starts because we’re already talking about language. “What does frittata even mean?” my ten-year-old daughter Birdy asks through a mouthful of it. I explain that it comes from the Italian word for “fried,” which does not seem quite to capture anybody’s sense of the word’s staccato delight—it should be Italian for eggs used as percussion instruments or eggs so good they make you stutter. “Plus, it’s kind of like a trick. Fried sounds like French fries. Not like a big, dry egg thingy. No offense.” None taken.
Next up: genitalia. Segue: none discernible. “I kind of can’t believe that manhole is something people actually say,” Ben, who’s thirteen, says. “Like, Oh, don’t fall into that manhole! Don’t worry, I won’t—it’s got a manhole cover.“ He stops to chew, then adds, “There’s kind of no getting around the condomy sound of that.” Indeed not. And if there’s a better time than dinner to talk about the word vagina, my family hasn’t found it. “It’s just so weird-sounding!” Birdy announces, laughing. “Is it weird because of what it means? Or is it really just weird?”
“Vagina is actually the Latin word for sheath,” I say. (High-school Latin geeks represent!) The kids grimace at this information. “What do you guys make of that?”
And what they make of that is a lot. We talk about how naming the vagina for sheath means that its main purpose is—by definition—to hold a “sword.” Which is a disturbingly violent image, on the one hand, and, on the other, gives the woman’s body significance only in passive relationship to the man’s. “If you named the woman’s part slot machine and the man’s part coin, at least it would flip the idea of which one was actually doing something,” I say, confusingly, since a) a slot machine doesn’t actually work without the coin, and b) now I picture a winning trio of cherries, quarters pouring from the casino of my crotch. This is not an especially empowering image. “Is penis Latin for sword?” the kids want to know, sensibly enough—and it’s not, but I explain that it’s actually related to the word pen. Pen and sword are both pretty mighty—and, by definition, pretty much man tools. (But if you’re a woman who’s ever peed her own name into the snow—well, bless your quadriceps.)
“The word vagina makes it kind of hard to describe being a lesbian,” Birdy muses. “Don’t mind us—nothing to see here, folks—just two sheaths sheathing together.” It’s not how I would have explained the constraints of language to a classroom of feminist theory students—but she’s exactly right. And the conversation moves on, even though I don’t yet know that there will be weeks of their father’s “Let me just sheath my weapon here…” bedtime jokes.
What I’m hoping the kids will understand is that things are not simply as they seem. This is what critical thinking is and means, of course. So, we all know—and want our children to grasp—that a “good-for-you-and-fun-fun-fun-fun-fun” cereal commercial does not simply inform you in your own healthy best interest, and you should not march robotically to the store in hypnotized pursuit of Puffy Sugar Pony-Os. But language is a little trickier, because we imagine that we control it, but we don’t. To speak is not to pull transparent meaning, God-like, from thin air; it’s more like composing a mosaic from a bin of used tiles, and some of the tiles are dirty or broken or not really the color you wanted, or someone has written “bitch” on one in tiny letters. What language is available to you? What meanings do words carry along with them, beyond the ones you intend? Words have history, assumptions, even bigoted connotations that they drag along on their shoes like toilet paper, into your own speech and, even, your own thoughts.
“Sometimes words are the wrong tool for the job,” I’m saying now, the frittata plates pushed away. “It’s like getting a set of Lincoln Logs, only what you want to make is a teddy bear. How do you say the thing you want to say if there aren’t even the words to say it?”
Ben mentions the classic example of Eskimos having fifty words for snow, and we discuss the significance of that chilly linguistic abundance—how it both reflects, but also helps create, the cultural importance of snow. (I do have to interrupt the snow conversation to talk about the word Eskimo itself, and why it might be problematic for Aleutian, Inuit, and Yupik people— bringing racist history along for the ride, as it does, like an insidious little hitchhiker.) Knowing fifty words for snow allows you not just to describe fifty different kinds of snow, but to see them in the first place—the kind of snow that means spring is coming or the kind of snow that makes your eyelashes look sparkly (I’m just imagining here)—whereas we’re like the grunting oafs of winter precipitation, making a single distinction between snow and sleet.
I look it up, and there’s a great Wikipedia entry on “polysynthetic languages”—languages that make single words out of lots of concepts. One section includes a sublimely specific word in the Austrailian Tiwi language, pitiwuliyondjirrurlimpirrani, which means “They would carry the dead wallaby on their shoulders.” In English, we have to borrow schadenfreude from the Germans because we have joy and we have damage, but, given our love of dualism, of keeping unlike things apart, we don’t have a word that contains both at the same time. Or related, but more charged, there’s the Native-American word berdache, which means two-spirit—a gender category that falls between man and woman and knocks those words from their constraining binary orbit. I explain this to the kids. “Oh,” Birdy says. “It’s like ze, you know, at Hampshire.” Indeed, some students at a local college have been agitating for a third gender designation besides he or she—and for a bathroom to go with it. My long-haired son is interested in this idea, despite the fact that he identifies fully as a boy. “Ze means there aren’t just two kinds of everybody,” he says. “And it’s true. There aren’t.” He smiles dazzlingly, his cheeks like freckle-dotted plums, and I think exactly.
I’m reminded of the conversation we had a few weeks ago, when a young friend had been over and we’d gotten out Guess Who?, an old favorite board game of the kids. Playing requires a kind of process-of-elimination deduction—like the war game Battleship, only instead of marine coordinates, Guess Who? is based on offensive visual stereotypes. You have to guess the other player’s character by asking questions (Does your person have long hair? Is your person black?) and then flipping down all the characters you know it’s not until you’re left with the right one. Ben was looking at the game like he’d never seen it before. “You know what I just realized?” he said. “This game is, like, practically all white men. Without even thinking about it, I’ve always been like, I hope I don’t get a woman or a black person or I’ll be screwed! How messed up is that?” Very! But he’s right. If you get, say, the one black woman, the other player will be able to guess who you are right away. “White guys win,” my son concludes. “What an educational game.”
Another one is Dutch Blitz, the “vonderful goot” card-laying game. There are boy cards and girl cards, and you have to organize your deck in rows of alternating genders. Put a boy next to a boy and the whole world gets sucked into a black hole of Amish sexual catastrophe (i.e. you’ll be cheating). Birdy always wants to “play gay,” where you just reverse the rules, and this drives Ben crazy, for some reason—this kid who is both a total pink-haired iconoclast and also, occasionally, rule-bound. “Let’s just play the way you’re supposed to. It doesn’t help to make a rule the other way,” he says, impatient, and Birdy says, “Well, it does, actually, Ben, because gay people are historically underrepresented.” Michael gives me the silent high-five sign. But of course, she’s right. Even though Dutch Blitz is not called “the vonderful goot game about being straight,” heterosexuality is surreptitiously championed by the mandatory pairing off of all those Amish girls and boys. It’s not just a deck of cards; it’s an entire world view.
We watch the Olympics and talk about the women gymnasts with their spingly-spangly eye makeup, still compelled to be decorative even at their most muscularly athletic. “They should make the men weightlifters wear glittery eye shadow too!” Birdy says, and we laugh to imagine it. We talk about Beauty and the Beast, Ben concluding that the implicit message is that it’s your job, as a woman, to tame your violent boyfriend, and Birdy concluding that, thanks to the princely metamorphosis, the moral of a story that appears to be about acceptance, is actually, “Oh phew, he’s actually pretty.” (She uses the word “pretty” totally unselfconsciously, which cracks me up.) Am I making it sound like we order a pizza, then sit around reading aloud to each other from Umberto Eco, chuckling lightly over Derrida passages? I swear it’s not like that. Beyond the simple, analytic pleasure of it, it is also, for me, the highest form of optimism: if you want a better life for everyone, then you need to see what’s what—even the hidden things—so you can figure out what you need to change. That’s not cynicism. It’s eyes wide open, seeing the world as it really is, and also seeing, in the distance, a better one.
But we can only take so much tough-mindedness. The candles burn low, and the children are onto one of their other favorite topics: What if you had to pick a really weird name? Past contenders have included Poopy Diaper versus I Pooped My Pants, or The Great Buttholio versus Arsewipe, but tonight they follow the theme. “If you had to be called it, and you had to tell people it was your name,” Ben is saying, “and it was spelled Vagina either way, would you rather be named Va-jean-a or Vah-zhee-nah?” “I don’t know,” Birdy says, “but what if you could keep your name but then you’d have to get a picture of a vagina tattooed on your forehead instead?” I leave the table for bed because, clearly, my work here is done.
About the Author: Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines , including Family Fun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. Read more at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.
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