My brother has had a Facebook page for years. His son set it up for him, and, as far as I could tell, he never looked at it. But now, suddenly, he is appearing live on Facebook. So he chats with me:
- “Hey, Julie! Do you remember the phrase When Lou gets his organ?“
- “Remember it? I still USE it!”
- “Do you remember Keep those elephants moving?“
- “No. What was that about?”
Does every family have certain catch-phrases particular to that household? In our house on West Main Street, back in Shelby, Ohio, we tossed out catch-phrases as shorthand to sum up a situation, or as the punch line, or just for silliness.
When Lou gets his organ began life as a straight line. My brother’s first rock band was a sketchy proposition. He had a guitar, his friend had a bass guitar, and another friend had some drums. Lou, who didn’t have an organ — yet — was part of the band. Lou would sit by as they practiced, attentive, listening for the places where his instrument should join in. After every song, one or another of the band would say “That will sound great when Lou gets his organ.” Lou never got the money together to buy an organ and the statement remained stuck forever in future tense.
In our family, we could be talking about something we were going to do or wanted to do, or something someone else said they wanted to do. The chances of you pulling it off? Yeah, right. When Lou gets his organ!
In this same way, Mama might tell us to Keep those elephants moving! This line jumped out of a scene in a bad movie* where Hannibal is crossing the Alps to take Rome by surprise. I mean, who would even try to cross the alps with elephants, right? That’s a surprise right there, let alone the horses, legions, chariots, and everything else.
The tension in the scene is that there’s a blizzard and if the elephants stop they will freeze to death. So over and over we hear someone ordering someone else to Keep those elephants moving! It was an awful movie. We watched it over and over on our black and white TV. The same movies got played on rotation late at night like they were re-runs or something. Or anyway, that’s how I remember it.
For us, Keep those elephants moving! morphed into an admonition to get the dishes washed or get our butts out the door. A very useful string of words, Keep those elephants moving! Nagging without the sting. You might want to adopt it yourself, even if you haven’t watched the movie. (I’d advise against it.)
Then there’s He’s got trunks of them in the attic. This comes from a joke so simple even I can (usually) tell it though it will lose a lot in translation to text. So here’s a summary.
- Patient: Doctor, my friends think I’m crazy!
- Dr. stroking his goatee: Do they now?
- Patient: Yes! They tell me I’m crazy because I like pancakes.
- Dr.: You like pancakes?
- Patient: Yes. I like pancakes.
- Doctor: There’s nothing wrong with liking pancakes. I like pancakes myself?
- Patient: You do? You like pancakes?
- Doctor: Yes, I do. I like pancakes.
- Patient: Doctor, you must come home with me. I have trunks of them in my attic!
This joke made a big impression on my family. Even my father liked it. It sums up an aspect of human nature we are all familiar with in one form or another.
She’s got trunks of them in her attic applies to those quilters who whisper SABLE (Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy) to themselves when they see their own face in a mirror. Anything –even beautiful cotton fabric, or gorgeous yarn, or blank canvases — accumulated in excess is a sign of trunks in the attic.
Overworked and put-upon? Or you think you are? We had a phrase for that, too. And then I had to feed the guppies. SIGH!
This was from my Gram, who, it seemed to us, had had an easy life. She’d grown up with servants and a summer cottage bigger than any home I’ve ever lived in. Her married life began comfortably, too — bridge, bonbons, furs, cook, gardener, maid. But these privileges gradually fell by the wayside until she was doing the housework herself. Her letters included lists of slights suffered and onerous tasks, culminating in and then I had to feed the guppies. (We tacked on the SIGH! )
I think Gram projected her many disappointments onto those innocent guppies. My uncle left a few guppies behind when he got married and moved out and those few guppies multiplied as my Gram overfed them. Their descendents filled the big tanks in the sun room. I can imagine poor Gram, overwhelmed with unwelcome changes to her life, and on top of everything else, standing by helplessly as there were more and more hungry guppies to feed.
I don’t know what ever really became of those swishing swarms of little fish. There was some story about one huge guppy per tank. But all I know for sure is they weren’t there when Gram and Gramps moved out of that house and into an apartment near the Norristown zoo. After that, Gram sometimes complained about the screeching of the peacocks, but she never took it personally.
The whole world is MUD! was often the final pronouncement of my three-year-old daughter as she collapsed into sudden sleep, naked atop a bare mattress, with the pillows, books, toys, blankets, sheets and pajamas strewn about on the floor where she’d thrown them. My husband and I can’t load this phrase with the indignant certainty our daughter did, but we sometimes use it to convey a more subtle sentiment than the mundane Oh, shit! The girl had a way with words, even at three.
Once, when two of our young sons lay on the floor with legs tangled together, neither boy could get up off the floor when asked because, they each explained, He’s holding me down. I call up this phrase when my husbands asks me to do something that requires me to stand up. I might indicate my reluctance with He’s holding me down.
Since we are a book-loving family, we quote classic literature, too. My husband might be looking for his keys or phone or hat and he might say to himself; Look on the chair, Teddy Bear! (I didn’t say we quoted high-brow literature.)
Go! Dog, Go! was a big favorite with our children. When I first got sick with chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia and we had just moved to a strange city, I often got lost. As I would drive over the same bridge in Dayton, Ohio, for the second — or third — time, one of the boys in the back seat was sure to recite Go around again! from the page where the dogs are riding a ferris wheel. Later, Go around again! fit the circular reasoning of the teenage boys of the household, trying to wheedle their way out of something. And it still works when I get lost, which still happens.
Do you have words or phrases that your family members understand but which make outsiders scratch their heads?
Do you know the stories behind them?
*Perhaps “escaped from” is more accurate. That movie was really bad.