In the mind of a five-year-old boy there is a fine line between breaking wind because if you didn’t you’d blow up like a balloon and explode, and doing it for pure delight. Dexter knows which side of the line he’s on, and it’s not the side of science. Yesterday I discovered him watching his favourite programme, Pointless, weak and dribbly with laughter.
Me - “Alexander and Richard must be on good form tonight. What gives?”
Dexter - “I just farted, Mummy!”
Me (affecting stern-face) - “It’s a normal bodily function. Just say ‘Pardon Me’ and get over it.”
Dexter - “But it’s so funny! Wait. I did another one!”
Me - “I’m leaving the room now.”
Dexter - “It smells stinky!”
I left the room in disgust at such juvenile behavior, and also because I wanted to email my mum that hilarious picture of the double Russian toilet cubicle at the Winter Olympics, which is just so funny!
I’m proud to say that as a family we don’t go in too much for prettifying euphemisms when discussing the finer points of our bodies and their functions. A fart is still just a fart in the Womersley household, not a windy-pop—which is something Tinkerbell might do, or a blow-off, and only a bottom-burp over my dead body. But I can’t deny there have been lapses. When Dexter was a baby we regaled him with a special bath-time song which went like this—
Wash your bits and bobs,
Wash your bits and bobs,
Yabber dabber doo dah
Yabber dabber too dah
Wash your bits and bobs!
sung to the tune of Knees up Mother Brown.
And then there was Winky. Not The winky or Your winky, just Winky, the fourth member (ahem) of the family. In his heyday Winky was an independent little character with a very particular sense of bawdy humour that no-one, not even Dexter could quite condone. He was always getting up to mischief; tangling up his underpants, hosing down the bathroom floor, even popping out to do a Peepo at inappropriate moments. But those days are over now and Winky has been banished to Ye Olde Worlde of Toddlerdom.
Yes, it’s a slippery slope I’m afraid, and I’d warn any new parents to beware—what might sound cute to you now will almost certainly curl your toes in a year or two. Memories of my own childhood words for one’s intimate parts and their activities are now lost in the mists of time, thank God. All that is except one that my dad insisted on using loudly and publicly, and which even now makes me want to throw up from embarrassment. ‘Big Jobs’ or just plain ‘Jobs’ when referring to the animal variety—as in, “Look out! A dog has done its jobs right on top of that sandcastle, step away from the sandcastle everybody.” Yes, I’m sorry, I know you can never un-read that now. Let’s move on.
School of course is a great resource for picking up language skills—but I’m not talking about the hotly debated subject of Phonics. I’m currently fighting a losing battle to get Dexter to say ‘bottom’ instead of ‘bum’. I can see his point, everybody else says bum, so why shouldn’t he? I’m stubbornly hanging on to bottom, partly because it’s actually quite a nice word, and also because my mum refused to engage with ‘bum’ when I was Dexter’s age, and what is having kids for, if not to revisit the rules and regulations of your own childhood upon them? I can see the gleeful glitter in Dexter’s eyes when another child says bum and doesn’t get told off, or even better when another child’s mummy says it and isn’t struck down by lightning or eaten by wolves. I guess I’ll have to compromise sooner or later. I’ll tolerate bum grudgingly but he knows, because we’ve had a long talk about it, that bum-bum is totally unacceptable.
My mum also had a running battle against the word ‘toilet’, championing ‘lavatory’ or the more user-friendly ‘loo’, but recently she has had to concede defeat, aware that she was beginning to sound a bit too much like Dame Maggie Smith in Downton mode. These days you’re more likely to hear a nightingale trill in Berkeley Square than someone ask the way to the ‘lavatory’. Though I can’t say I’m sorry as for me the word conjures up chilly Victorian conveniences with complicated flush systems that you have to have ‘the knack’ to control. We had one when I was growing up which had its name ‘The Jap’ painted inside the toilet bowl in Wedgewood blue. It’s only now that I realize with shock that none of us kids ever made the rhyming connection between the name of our toilet (sorry Mum, lavatory!) and what it was intended for, we were probably too busy trying to pull the chain or cringing at the sound of Dad outside the door saying “Are you doing Big jobs in there or hatching an egg?”
There’s a good reason why, like the Eskimo’s fabled plethora of words for snow, the English language has an ample supply of words for our bodily functions and appendages. It’s all down to slang and there’s no point having loads of slang words for things that will never raise a blush or an eyebrow. A yawn is just a yawn, an arm is just an arm or occasionally a limb—which is a bit more sexy—but basically that’s it. And yet anything to do with genitalia and you’re spoilt for choice. Unfortunately I don’t have the time or the expertise to discuss why some of these slang terms have become acceptable nomenclature while others are deemed dangerous enough to turn a teacher or dinner-lady to stone. Though I guess it might explain why, to save embarrassment or social blacklisting, some parents resort to making up their own words for their children’s…bits and bobs. Even the most right-on, morally enlightened folk can find the path of parenting strewn with language bombs when it comes to reassuring a child that their body is normal and shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment, while at the same time pointing out that going up to Granny, farting and then laughing about it, isn’t the done thing—even if she started it.
Dexter’s dad, who is himself a consummate maker-upper of words—‘tweety-beaks’ being his collective noun for a noisy gathering of garden birds and ‘jimble jambles’ his take on pajamas—says I’m worrying too much about policing Dexter’s vocabulary. But I think that’s a bit rich coming from a man who managed to slip the words ‘my perineum’ into conversation at a recent multi-generational family lunch. Besides, I’m supposed to be a writer—words are my tools and my delight. Except Big Jobs, which I’d gladly flush down the lavatory of history without a backward glance.