For the love of wordplay and timeless family jokes | Whale’s Tales

An American woman was meeting with old friends shortly after her return from an extended stay overseas, when one of her friends, noticing her distinctive necklace of large white rocks, blurted out:

“Oh, that’s so Wilma!”

Everyone laughed.

As in “Wilma Flintstone,” who wore such a neclace. No explanation needed. Because for Americans of a certain age, “The Flintstones” is as much part of their cultural makeup as are “The Wizard of Oz,” the Abbott and Costello sketch “Who’s on First?” and “The Godfather.” Each generation builds its own.

The woman told the writer of the publication in which this story appeared that she had been unaware until that moment how much she’d missed the simple pleasure of being among her own, in the cozy embrace of idioms, quirks and oddballisms she understood and could respond to without making mortifying mistakes.

Of course, this happens in the micro-culture of family life too. Every family has stories only its members “get.”

So here are some of the stories that bind the Whale family together.

From one of his moments with my brother, Matt, when he was just starting to walk, my dad picked up a phrase. Seems dad was about to feed him when Matt stopped the progress of the fork toward his mouth, looked suspiciously at the food, then at dad, then back at the food and demanded: “What’s in it?”

“Ingredients,” dad answered, without regard for the gravity of the question to the young, bibbed gourmand in the high chair.

“Greedients?!” Matt protested. “Don’t like greedients!”

Dad would trot that one out for the rest of his life.

When Matt was a bit older, he relayed a few of my father’s choicer words about a feisty neighbor to that neighbor, who, with good humor, repeated it verbatim to dad:

“My daddy says you’re a sumanitch!”

The old man likewise got a kick out of telling about the moment my big brother, Jim, then a toddler, approached him as he, dad, was reading a magazine with a large pie prominently displayed on the back page. Up came Jim with his thumb in his mouth, and said sloppily, “Ooohh, look at the malicious cookie!”

On the day before Jim began his first job, working at a gas station, he proudly told dad that he, Jim, had been promised a work shirt that would have his own name on it. No, dad said, they’ll probably give you a shirt that says “Al” on it.” They both laughed.

The next day, Jim sheepishly showed him the anticipated shirt — and there on the pocket, in big bold red letters, was the name “Al.”

Every language and culture has its idioms, and these can be devils to anyone trying to master them. I have always believed the Japanese language with its elaborate protocol and face-saving turns of phrase would be akin to trying to make a rope out of sand, or crafting an inside without an outside.

I think we all have stories like this to tell.

One of my old professors told us about a highly-embarrassing moment she suffered at dinner in a home in France when she was a student. Seems one of the hosts asked at the conclusion of the feast if she was full, and she answered in the French she knew: “Je suis plein,” trusting the phrase meant, “I am full.” The scarlet faces of her hosts were her first clue she’d got something wrong. What she’d actually said was, “I’m knocked up.”

My old prof later compounded her woes by mistaking the “bath” for “the bathroom,” with results that we shall only hint at here.

So, what are some the stories that bind you and yours together? I’d love to hear them.

Robert Whale can be reached at