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Let’s do ‘lafa-lafi’—the pleasure of the invented word

There is a satisfaction in using home-grown invented words, a personal lexicon distinct to families, friends and communities

Some personal vocabularies are borne out of a need for discretion
Some personal vocabularies are borne out of a need for discretion (iStockphoto)

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Last year my sister and I designed T-shirts for the family to wear at a celebratory dinner for my mother’s 70th birthday. “Mumsie-isms”, phrases or words distinct to her, were printed on each shirt, like “Needs a good bumboo”, a sharp scolding; “Let’s eat luttrun-puttrun”, a craving for junk food; and “Boochums Boris”, affectionate gibberish used on all dogs. We inherited this vivid vocabulary we grew up hearing, particularly around her and my grandmother. “Sundays, and holidays, are holidays”, derived from a shop sign, was chanted every time there was a day off; or an abhorrent something-or-the-other was described as “Absolutely horrendous-V-Z”, the extra letters emphasising the horrendousness. When my nani felt “grubby”, she was not referring to hygiene, but to being hungry for “grub” or food. She dubbed my free-spirited dancing, or any uncivilised movement, as “the bullscratch”, which was not a compliment!

These personal vocabularies are prevalent everywhere, a treasure trove of words that distil the shared memories and experiences of a group. There is a pleasure in using this organic language, filled with nostalgia, meaning and a certain liberation, as it does not adhere to the rules but fulfils the purpose of expressing ourselves when formal vocabulary just cannot hit the spot. 

Some enthusiasts of absurd vocabularies share their favourite words and the significance of this repository of creative expression.

The long and short of it

“My family has an endless lexicon of slang and nonsense, led by my dad,” says Tilottama Shome, a Delhi-based architect. There is the use of popular slang, like “awara gardi’ (aimless wandering) in Hindi or the Bengali “godaibaji” (wasting time), but in Shome’s home, brevity is key. Everything is abbreviated. “What are you doing today? Just GB (godaibaji) at home,” says Shome, explaining the use of these abbreviations. “She’s off doing AG with the SP (Sango-Pangos, gang of friends).” It’s snappy and convenient lingo with which everyone in the family, all their names truncated to initials, is well versed. Some abbreviations are longer, like LUSLUNS (“let us see, let us not speculate”), used to curb enthusiasm and conjecture when awaiting an important announcement.

Some abbreviations are borne out of a need for discretion. “We use FHB (family hold back) if we have unexpected guests at a meal and don’t want the good stuff to run short,” says Delhi-based homemaker Kirti Ratnam. “There’s also FAO (flys are open!). I don’t remember the story behind the bad grammar, I assume it was to throw people off. FIO is too obvious.”

Ratnam’s family glossary also consists of nostalgic gibberish. Baby talk that stuck, like “chutta putta”, a term of endearment, and “sonna-bun-na”, now used more to irritate her son, who has outgrown the rhyming cuteness. Expressions steeped in nostalgia, even when used later, which evoke the affection or protectiveness encapsulated in them. Some are inspired by people, like “Eliya Peter”, Ratnam’s term for a scoundrel. “Yeli or eli in Tamil means rat. It’s originally a nickname given to a certain bishop who wasn’t highly regarded in my father’s family.”

What’s that sound?

Many of our invented words are based on sound, onomatopoeic utterances which enhance meaning. “‘Shatoing’ was originally coined between my friends when one of us went on a first date with a girl and before the end of the date she was already making wedding plans. We were all in our early 20s and barely employed,” says Sameer Guha, assistant general counsel for South-East Asia with Mars Inc., in Goa. “It means ‘that escalated fast’, resembling the sound of something accelerating quickly, like I offered to help the RWA with some registration work and, shatoing, they wanted to make me president!”

Two distinct words have stuck with Bengaluru-based urban planner Shreya Pillai. “I heard ‘futhering’ from a friend and ‘lafa-lafi’ from my family, both of which just perfectly describe aimlessly wasting time,” says Pillai. Both Pillai, who is Tamilian-Bengali, and Shome use “ong-bong” or “ongo-bongo”, familiar to many Bengalis, a nonsense word imitating the ceremonial chanting of Sanskrit shlokas. “Bengali has these interesting limericks and nonsense rhymes like Sukumar Ray’s ‘Abol Tabol’. Many Bengali children have grown up hearing these,” says Pillai.

The significance of nonsense

“I would argue that these words are not what is usually understood as nonsense, which is by definition meaningless words, but are metaphorical extensions of the meaning of common lexical items created to fill a semantic or lexical gap in the system,” says Aditi Ghosh, professor at Calcutta University’s linguistics department. “For example, the use of the word ‘bumboo-ing’ brings in an intensity that ‘scolding’ fails to convey. Its innovative use fills the lexical requirement which was missing in the language.”

Pillai echoes this. “Some of these words just exactly describe what you want them to, like lafa-lafi for wasting time. There are no English words that describe this in the same way.”

But their significance extends beyond accuracy. “After moving away from my childhood home, some of the words are used rarely, but when they are, they bring a sense of comfort and nostalgia. Sometimes they trip off the tip of my tongue because they perfectly describe what I want to say.” says Ratnam.

There’s also a sense of exclusivity in their use. “Some words or phrases are known only to a small group of people and have their origins in a shared experience or knowledge,” says Guha, describing a few like “biryani-ing”, taking the best bits out, which was invented when a friend served himself all the meat in the biryani, leaving only rice for everyone else, and “doing the jacooz”, a family favourite, used in the context of getting out of tricky situations, inspired by the way jacuzzi jets navigate difficult-to-reach places! “Using these can be quite gratifying, especially in a more public setting where the entire point of using the word is so that only the smaller group gets it,” he says.

For Shome, this personal lexicon fosters community within the family. Several terms are steeped in specific memories. Like “murgi” to describe a traffic jam, because the road to her house in Delhi was frequently congested owing to a bordering street market. “One of the things sold in this market that we could see while sitting in the car were cages of poultry. So ‘murgi’ equals traffic jam.”

Ketalee” (kettle) became associated with thinking of nothing in particular, originating in the fact that her father would be frequently lost in thought while sitting in the living room, staring at a decorative Tibetan kettle. “As our family grew with spouses and kids, they also learnt and shared in this vocabulary. It’s a sweet form of banter and exchange,” says Shome.

Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.

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