February 24, 2013


Every so often words from the past are triggered by strange words from the present. One that reappeared in my mind a few years ago was culch. The culch pile, when I was a child, was that pile of junk by the barn that we were never never to touch. It was full of nuts and wires and pieces of machinery no longer useful, but that might be needed in the future. Looking it up in a dictionary of regional words, I discovered it came from Maine, referred to ship ballast thrown overboard that later provided homes for oysters. Houses had culch tables and culch drawers, but culchy women were frowned upon. I love the word—so much more promising than the junk drawer or closet.

This month’s word find was in an article in the Oregonian, where it mentioned a home decorator often used knolling as a technique. Since I thought of knoll as a small hill, I had a mental vision of piling up the culch in an artistic heap. But no, it came from a tidy Mr. Knoll who laid out his tools just so. Knolling seems to refer to lining up your books and magazines and other home d├ęcor so all edges are square with the table they are lying on. People who knoll probably dislike anything crooked so they straighten pictures on the wall and shut open doors and drawers. We all have met--or lived with—these, but never knew them as knollers. Who knew?

Another old phrase I heard people use when I lived in the East is “redding up a room.” I suspect the root is getting a room ready for company, probably by knolling the pillows and books and dumping the culch where it won’t be seen.

If we have all these neat words for housekeeping, why don’t we have enough neat words for the company that we keep? When I was little everyone was either referred to as Mr. or Mrs., unless they were close friends of the parents in which case they were uncles or aunts or cousins. I still am not sure of my relationships with many of these people.

Families today have a very mixed assortment of relationships, few of which are named. We have the in-laws of course, but no word for the other grandmother of my grandchildren without saying she’s my son’s mother-in-law or my daughter-in-law's mother. Awkward. Recently I’ve noticed references to DILs and MILS and SILs and FILS, but SILs can mean both sons and sisters, and we still don’t know who is related to whom.

How about the people who live in the same abode without having a marriage license. Renters? Partners? POSSLQs? Ogden Nash once wrote a funny verse about “Will you be my POSSLQ?” The word was an acronym from a census form about Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters. But today we need another S, and college roommates may be both S and O.

The step relationships are also quite difficult to explain, if and when explanations are needed. Sometimes there are intricacies of how people are interrelated that defy easy explanations. I’ve asked people from other countries if they have some words we can adapt, but haven’t found any beyond their own words for the immediate families: Oma and Opa, Vava and Vavo, etc.

Of course one little boy nearly broke my heart when he simplified the whole thing. He introduced a new child in school to me as “This is my brother-for-now.” There’s a lot of relationship behind that simple statement!

I’d better quit worrying about the words and be grateful for the people in my life. Most of them are not just FN (for now)  but are  FF—Friends Forever. That covers everyone, regardless of relationships.

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