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Weekly Prompt: Private Vocabularies

2009 December 18

Everyone has a private vocabulary (or vocabularies) to which only they and those that they know are privvy.  Some of these “private” terms are particular to an individual person’s worldview or imagination (I have a friend who refers to internet survey memes as “salsa”), while others develop in the context of relationships with a particular group of people (whenever our 12th grade calculus teacher told us to “put away the Martian,” my classmates and I knew that he meant for us to stop doing other classes’ homework while his back was turned).  A private vocabulary can be deeply personal, and can link us to the awkward idiosyncracies of our families (as Paul Muldoon has reflected in his poem “Quoof”), or it can serve as a fruitful site from which creative production can bloom into entire alternate worlds (as in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth,” or Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”).  Private vocabularies can be nonsense-based, or they can be based in mistranslations, in grammatical inconsistencies, or in innovation born of the need to fill linguistic gaps.  This, I think, can be especially poignant for those of us from immigrant families in which a language other than English, a mixture of English and other language(s), or a non-standard version of English, was commonly spoken in the home.

Exercise:
Write a poem that draws on a word or set of words particular to a private vocabulary of your own.

Here’s an excerpt from my attempt, which draws upon the first time that my younger brother (who grew up calling me Jaibo, his variant of the Chinese word for older sister), addressed me by my “real” (legal) name.

Losing the Nickname

My real name
fell from your mouth
so stiffly I thought
perhaps you’d coughed.
“Ah-ris,” the sound
of it seemed to stick
in your gullet, balled up
behind your gums. 
The word clattered
from your tongue,
scratchy, a stale clump
of bread bumping along
through uncombed carpet . . .

As always – if you attempt this - we’d be flattered if you shared an excerpt of your results in the comments.  Happy writing!

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