Twists of speech

MY family has a way with words. A bizarre way. I can boast of relatives who have come up with such gems as ``pewtered'' (as in ``my car engine pewtered out on the highway''), be-throated (``betrothed''), ``lemonlade'' (``a refreshing glass of''), ``mizzled'' (``misled''). My mother's word for someone coming down harried and cross for breakfast can hardly be beaten: bed-raggled. She once brightened up the high street in my home town by shouting through the window at my aunt, who happened to be cycling past at the time: ``Dorothy, how do you spell `which'? '' My aunt of course had to yell back, ``Which witch?''

It was that same aunt who scored a triumph after a delicious meal in an Asian restaurant. ``What's Indian for `Thank you for a nice meal'? '' she asked the waiter. He -- with just a tinge of rebuke in his voice -- replied, ``Pakistani.'' ``Ah,'' she said with all the graciousness of a duchess conveying compliments to the chef at the Ritz, ``Pakistani.''

Grannie was also a master at brightening and muddling up the language. Her daughters insist that once a pack of dogs was holding a convention under the dining room window. ``Hark,'' she said, ``to those dumb animals.'' A frequent complaint when her children (five of them) grew too clamorous was ``You are all pecking at me like a pack of wolves.''

It was quite a shock to discover that there are other families whose gift with English is equally inspired. A California friend boasts that his mother ordered him to destroy a photograph of herself because ``it makes me look like the hunchback of Nova Scotia.'' She did even better, producing a deep financial insight when she explained that in her youth ``things were so cheap you could afford to be poor.''

Though I can't say the same about my own tendency to name-drop India Gandhi and Cyprus Vance, bedazzling twists of language are apt to conceal a wildly unconventional view of the world. My mother gaily told a cab driver, ``Keep the change -- I'm rich.'' I protested. ``I had to say that. Nobody ever does -- not even the rich.''

She wasn't rich. Far from it, though she seemed to think she was. Once she decided on the spot to buy a piece of real estate. She dredged her checkbook up from the depths of her handbag and inquired the price. It was in hundreds of pounds. ``How many naughts?'' she asked nonchalantly, pen poised.

This kind of insouciant behavior is the only form of advice she left us -- unless you count some suggestions about operating a motor vehicle. ``Never get stuck behind a man driver who's wearing his hat squarely on his head. He will never let you pass.''

I prefer the advice passed along by the great-aunt of a New England friend of mine: ``Never trust a woman whose hat has more personality than she has.'' Or that imparted to an Australian friend whose mother counseled her, ``Never ride your bicycle on the tram lines.''

On the other hand we really shouldn't forget that an offbeat use of language and the behavior that goes with it can be exasperating. It must have rubbed my grandfather the wrong way because he left his family. When a judge seeking a reconciliation asked him, ``Are you willing to take this woman back,'' his reply was so pithy and ranks so far above all the imaginative flights of his family that he deserves the last word. ``Willing,'' he announced, ``but not eager.''

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