Children are known to say some pretty bizarre things, and not necessarily the things they’ve heard and repeated from their parents. In fact, in many ways, children often have their own language. Some of the language is meant to inflict damage on the recipient, whereas other times it is meant for an entirely different purpose. Art Linkletter coined the phrase, “Kids say the darnedest things”. He surely had to be listening to us and writing down every word when the thought came to him. We not only had phrases, we had musical jingles as well, and like many of the phrases, the songs often made little sense. With some of the phrases, there was a subsequent comeback that immediately followed. I will list some of the phrases below and add meaning and context in order to give some perspective.
“Liar, liar, pants on fire, nose as long as a telephone wire”- This well known and beloved epithet was directed at a sibling, friend or foe whenever their previous comments were judged to be full of baloney. If a friend told me that their dad was in the CIA or had climbed Mt. Everest, when I knew perfectly well they were a janitor at the school and had never left the country, this phrase was the perfect comeback. The “nose as long as a telephone wire” was an obvious reference to the Pinocchio story, recently done by Disney. If Pinocchio told a lie, his nose would grow, and with each lie, it would grow ever longer. Where the “pants on fire” came from; your guess is as good as mine.
“Made you look”- There were many “tricks” used to get the other kid to look, at what didn’t matter. The fact that your trick had “made them look” was the point. You might sneak up behind them, lightly tap them on the right shoulder, while easing slightly toward their left and when they looked back to their right, thinking someone was there, you’d utter the phrase “made you look”. You may say something like, “there’s a monster behind you” and when they turned to look, “made you look”. Or you could be telling the truth (not likely, but possible), and they might assume you weren’t, and call your bluff, with the impending result being disastrous. I might say to Timmy, oblivious to what was behind him, “Timmy, Daddy’s standing behind you with the belt in his hand.” Timmy, not falling for the ploy, shoots back, “Ha! I’m not falling for that ohd twick. Besides, I’m not afwaid of Daddy.” Well at least Timmy could say, “You didn’t make me look” after he and Dad had “danced”. The inexplicable thing was not how many times we fell for it, but how many times we tried to fool each other.
“Wanna bet!” or “I’ll betcha!”- Since we had limited debating skills we often resorted to this when faced with an argument that we couldn’t seem to win. There were a couple of problems with this approach: One; we didn’t have anything to bet with (maybe that’s why the stakes were seldom mentioned with the phrase). Two; how would it be proven one way or another who was right? When we were absolutely sure of being right, we might say something like, “I’ll betcha a million dollars.”
“Shut up. Make me. You’re already made, but too dumb to know it.”- If, no when, a sibling told you to shut up, often times it was hard to think of a decent comeback. You could say, “no, you shut up”, but that sounded pretty weak, so “make me” had a snappy ring to it and rolled off the tongue rather naturally. This pattern would often times be repeated over and over (“shut up, make me, shut up, make me”), but finally, in order to break the stalemate, “you’re already made, but too dumb to know it” pretty much ended the back and forth. There really isn’t a comeback to this particular phrase. Genius! There was one other that was pretty neat also. Someone would say “shut up” and the comeback would be “make me” and then the ultimate comeback to stop the other person in their tracks, “I don’t make trash, I burn it.” Wow!
“I know you are, but what am I?”- Although Pee Wee made this famous, it was already in use for years before he came along. Another version of this was “What you say is what you are”. Either would work when the right moment came. Timmy, being smart says, “Wonnie, you’ah a butt head.” Now, I could have responded with a number of things; “no, you’re a butt head, shut up, I’m telling, I hate you, I’m going to beat you up, you’re absolutely correct”, the possibilities were endless. However, the easiest response, especially if you weren’t in the mood for the usual back and forth, was one of the two mentioned above. Again, “Wonnie, you’ah a butt head.” In a matter of fact way my response would be, “What you say is what you are.” What could Timmy possibly come back with? It was almost like a game of chess and his king had just been cornered and he had no way out; Checkmate! If, for some reason, your mind froze up and you couldn’t think of “what you say is what you are”, there was one more that worked perfectly, a secret weapon in comebacks: “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.”
Not a kid in the land could insult us, without paying a severe price, in a volley of comebacks that seem to be much more insightful than kids of our age could have come up with. In this case the saying, “a great defense is the best offense”, became a reality. Like Superman fighting Mighty Mouse, who would win?
“He touched me.”- This particular phrase could mean a variety of things and may not even be true. Sometimes, just the inference of a touch would elicit this response (these episodes weren’t limited to, but inevitably happened in the family station wagon). In fact, that was part of the game. The offender would stick their finger in the other kid’s face, just close enough, within a 16th of an inch from their nose, but never actually touch them. At that point, if the other kid’s finger was within a 16th of an inch from the nose, you couldn’t slap their arm out of the way because then you would be the one “touching them”. It wasn’t even limited to touching, but could be a number of offenses; he/she looked at me, made a face at me, crossed their eyes at me, stuck their tongue out at me, etc. A typical back and forth with Vicki leading off, “Mommy, Ronnie touched me.” My immediate response, “Did not.” Vicki’s comeback, “Did to.” My escalated retort, “Did not!” Vicki’s even louder answer, “Did to!” Until Mom had heard enough and interjected adamantly, “Would you two kids shut up?
Mom’s next move would be to separate us in the back seat of the car. We now had our own space, our own side so to speak. This seemed like a good idea to Mom, but actually led to the next argument. Knowing that there was an invisible line that separated us, the temptation was to find out just where that line was. That would lead to this exchange between Kathy and Timmy. “Timmy, you’ah on my side.” Timmy’s answer, “No I’m not. This is my side. You’ah side is ovah theah.”
Carving up territories worked in beds, cars, chairs, couches, wherever we happened to be at the time. It was like we were each sovereign nations with borders and the neighboring country was invading. The only thing left to do was launch a counterattack.
“None of your beeswax”- There you were, playing with your truck, and your sibling walks up and says, “What are you doing?” It would have been just as easy to respond, “Playing with my truck”, but for some reason “none of your beeswax” was what came out. It was as if every question was a challenge that deserved a sharp retort. “Where are you going?” “None of your beeswax.” “How old are you?” “None of your beeswax.” Was this a case of just being obstinate or were there other motives at play? If your answer was “playing trucks”, then that might lead to another question such as, “Can I play?” If you had wanted to play trucks with someone else, you would have invited them. So, the “none of your beeswax” retort was more of a defense mechanism designed to keep the other kid at bay. Sometimes, the phrase was used to keep information from the other party. If Timmy, for example, walked up eating a bowl of ice cream, Kathy might ask, “Hey, wheah did you get that ice cweam?” To which Timmy, being the little snot that he was would reply, “None of youah beeswax.” This little exchange inevitably led to the next oft uttered phrase.
“That’s not fair!”- As in “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so too is what constitutes fair or not. If you have something that I don’t have, then it’s not fair. If I have something that you don’t have, fair really doesn’t matter. If Timmy received a spanking and I didn’t, I of course thought it plenty fair. Timmy, on the other hand, and by his very nature, figured that fair would be all 4 of us getting a spanking, even though 3 of us didn’t commit the offense that he was being spanked for. The reality; Mom and Dad were the sole arbiters of what was fair and we were left with the woeful cry, “That’s not fair!”
If you liked this brief excerpt from the book “Little Heathens”, you can read much more when the book is released next spring. Stay tuned.