My siblings and I, circa the “You’re all stupid” time
My husband and I have this game where we will take words and progressively mispronounce and inflect them until they sound nothing like the originals.
That’s how I knew we were family.
My nuclear Filipino family does it. Bjorn and his family do it. He and his sister have special names they call each other and use phrases known only to them (they call it Swedish, but whatever).
Among my siblings, the making up of words was born out of a sense of necessity. In our household, foul language of any kind was strictly prohibited. To give you a taste of the restrictions, calling someone “stupid” was a punishable offense. It was such a high level no-no, it was considered worse than many words of the 4-lettered variety.
(Which reminds me of a time when I was about 4-years-old. From the time they are born, Filipino babies are expected to perform and entertain others. So as was their wont, my parents had me stand in front of the television to sing a song for our gathered guests. I decided to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” All was going well until I got to the chorus. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember the words. I racked my brain in a panic. Who loved me? I thought of a name. Was it something the Bible would tell me is so? My baby mind reasoned that it was feasible. Proud that I had figured it out, I belted, “Yes, Mommy loves me/ Yes, Mommy loves me…”
Of course, everyone laughed. Mortified, I fled to my mother. I clasped my arms around her neck and buried my face in her hair. Then, I looked up, and from the safety of her loving arms, I looked around the room and shouted, “You’re stupid! YOU’RE stupid! You’re all stupid!” with pure, unadulterated, baby rage.
But I digress.)
As I was saying, my siblings and I couldn’t put each other down or express our displeasure with the typical vulgarities, so we came up with our own, like “Stoopy,” “gottabatta” and “fricking.”
But it isn’t just something my siblings and I did. The fact that word-mangling is inherent to families was brought home to me with startling force when I was about 15 years old. We were headed home to Glendale, after a fairly long voyage (aka “a car-trip to Loma LInda.”) My parents were sitting in the front seat, my sister and I were in the back. Suddenly, my mom said to my dad, “Look out for the ‘lesspo.'”
“What is a ‘lesspo’?” I asked.
“You don’t know?” my dad said, obviously pleased at their cleverness. “Say it backwards.”
“Opsell?” I ventured.
“No!” my parents said with definite laughs in their voices.
I tried several more times to no avail. So did my sister. Their glee at our confusion was getting downright irritating.
“Just tell us!” we shouted. (I realize a lot of shouting goes on in our family.)
“Lesspo… po-less,” said my dad.
“Po-less?” I said, still confused.
“Police,” my mom said.
Police?!? I immediately started sputtering how “lesspo” is nowhere close to being police backwards, unless you consider it syllabically, which no one automatically does and that they had misled us, otherwise I totally would’ve gotten it, like, TOTALLY.
“Oh Jammie,” my sister said, “they’re just being Filipino.”
At that, the giggling started — for all of us. We must have laughed for a good 10 minutes, the kind of laughter that just when it seems like it’s dying down, someone giggles and starts it up all over again. In one sentence, my sister had captured years of living and learning together what it means to be “Filipino” — the corniness of it, the self-deprecating yet sly humor that defines it, especially for us. My parents weren’t just “being Filipino,” they were being … family.
Lesspo. It’s still one of my favorite words.
Jammie Karlman is the entertainment editor for the Chico Enterprise-Record. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JammieKarlman