Hey, you! What’s-yer-face!


I have a sort of strange confession to make. I don’t know what to call my mother-in-law. I’ve actually known her for almost 15 years. And in that time, I’ve deftly (and sometimes not so deftly) avoided calling her by any term of direct address. I’ve been “you-ing” her for over a decade. She’s of a generation and disposition that doesn’t really invite someone of my age calling her by her first name. She’s never suggested that I do. And I’m of a generation and disposition where calling someone I know well “Mrs. X” seems wrong. At some point, maybe shortly after John and I got married (the first time), she started signing cards “Ma & Pa X”. While I appreciate the effort to give me some forms of address, albeit many years after first running into the issue, I just can’t manage Ma or Pa. They sound straight out of Little House on the Prairie. And nobody else calls them that. John calls his mother “Mom.” (I call my own mother “Mom.” I don’t want to call John’s mother “Mom.”)

So I have to say I found it pretty funny to come across this in my class reading:

Knowing how to address your father-in-law (or mother-in-law) has often been a problem for many people: Mr Smith is sometimes felt to be too formal, Bill too familiar, and Dad pre-empted or even ‘unnatural’. The arrival of grandchildren is sometimes seen as a way out, it being easier to call a father-in-law Grandad than Dad. (Wardhaugh, p. 269)*

Tomorrow, we are heading down to NY to visit Grammy and Grampa. Problem solved.

Yes! This is why people have kids!

Brought to you by Great Moments in Family Planning.

*Wardhaugh, Ronald. 1992. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Second Edition. Cambridge, USA: Blackwell.

9 thoughts on “Hey, you! What’s-yer-face!

  1. Hey,
    Thanks for dropping by. I’ve been meaning to come round to thank you for the comment you left on the breastfeeding post. I’ve already sent that URL to one friend who is in tough with it all these days.

  2. NotSoSage-
    Yes, I suppose there are worse reasons. But are they as entertaining? I’ll have to look into this.

    Mad Hatter-
    Thank you for stopping by, and for that great post. I’m sure your post has helped many folks who have come across it. I’m glad to know that the URL I left may already be helpful to someone out there, too. (I feel for your friend. Those times were no picnic.)

  3. Have you, by chance, heard about the so-called ‘mother-in-law’ or avoidance registers among most Australian indigenous languages? If you are around someone who is classified as your mother-in-law¹ (or anyone else with whom you are in an taboo relationship) then you have to use a very constrained register of speech that differs in vocabulary and some grammatical forms from the standard. It’s been very intensely studied as a phenomena in the linguistics literature of late. Languagehat did a couple of posts on it ages ago (here and here).

    ¹It’s complicated, but multiple people could be classified as your mother-in-law.

  4. Jaŋari-
    You know, I hadn’t come across them. That’s really fascinating. Thanks for the links.

    And hmmm….”multiple people could be classified as your mother-in-law.” I find that somehow disturbing. One seems like plenty…

  5. I took the plunge early on and starting to call my MIL by her first name. It felt wrong for awhile and now it’s totally normal. But, before that, it was definitely the nameless wonder game.

  6. KC-
    I’m glad that you achieved some normalcy with your MIL. The first name thing just doesn’t seem to be an option for mine, though. I mean, I am her fourth child-in-law (what is the term for son-or-daughter-in-law??), and none of the others call her by name. I think they mostly use “Mom.” Which admittedly I have done in the direst of circumstances. Maybe two or three times in 15 years…

    And even her next-door neighbor, a woman around my name who she is friendly with, calls her Mrs. X. (Not her real name, by the way. Cause that would be a cool name.)

  7. Phoebe X does sound pretty cool. Though this:
    Awesome to the max.
    freaked me out, man. Talk about high school flashbacks. Or maybe junior high. Yick.

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