Bitzik! Geeking out over word — and family — origins

Annie's French-English dictionary

Growing up I idolized my older sister. I suppose it’s natural, then, that I acquired Annie’s love of word games. These days, we play Banagrams for hours. And we always have a game of Facebook Scrabble going.

Something else I acquired from my sister was her French-English dictionary, the one she got while she was in high school. It went with her to college, too.

I still have this dictionary. It’s about my age. The cover is tattered, the edges of the pages worn soft.

To me, this dictionary is more than a dictionary: It’s a gateway to our family’s heritage. Our weird traditions, our weird words.

While both my parents are of French (and possibly Scottish) Canadian descent, it was my mother who passed on this wackiness: On your birthday, after you blow out the candles, someone sneaks up behind you and smears a blob of butter on your nose. Then everyone laughs and takes photos as you grope for a napkin.

As to the origins of this tradition, my mother has no explanation. She just says, “I guess it’s some Quebec thing.”

One theory is, there’s a French wordplay joke, “un p’tit beurre des touillous.” It’s gibberish involving the French word for butter (beurre), and it has the same rhythm, and kind of sounds like, happy birthday to you.

Maybe that nonsense birthday phrase led to the butter-smearing tradition.

Here’s another theory (the one you’ll find if you Google “buttering nose on birthday”): Apparently, Scots believe a greased nose makes you too slippery for bad luck to stick to you.

The buttery birthday nose is almost as weird as bitzik.

That’s right, bitzik.

Whenever my mother burns the pot-roast or stubs her toe, she goes, “Aww, bitzik!”

Mom doesn’t know what bitzik means, but she picked it up from her aunt and her father. It’s probably profane, possibly Quebecois. I don’t know how to spell it, but that’s what it sounds like. Bitzik. It’s not in any dictionary I’ve ever referenced (including the one pictured above).

So, by now you’ve gathered that I totally geek out over word origins, especially as they relate to family heritage.

Speaking of family heritage, I gave my parents two National Geographic Genographic Project kits for Christmas (shout-out to Jean for first alerting me to those kits). How it works is, National Geographic analyzes your DNA to determine your “deep ancestry” — the migration paths your ancestors followed thousands of years ago. My parents haven’t mailed in their cheek swabs yet. I’m practically dying for them to get around to it (hint hint, Mom and Dad).

The PBS series Faces of America uses similar techniques to explore the family history of twelve famous Americans. Stephen Colbert is a featured celebrity. His ancestors immigrated here to build the Erie Canal. As he puts it, learning about your family heritage isn’t about looking for greatness in your past, but about knowing “what they went through, that I should exist.”

Likewise, dictionaries from the OED to allow us to know what words went through, that our language should exist. Of all the many interesting ways to unlock your cultural history, I find language the most fascinating. And I love dictionaries because they allow you to be a detective, discover the history behind words, and make connections not only between cultures, but from present to past.

I guess that’s why I’ve hung on to my sister’s French-English dictionary for so long. It’s a reminder of the love of language that we share, and what so many people before us went through that we should exist — and speak and act the way we do.

Annie’s birthday is tomorrow. I’ll be ready with the butter.

~Alicia Bessette

23 Replies to “Bitzik! Geeking out over word — and family — origins”

  1. WOW! A super shout-out! Thanks, Sister! And, readers, Alicia can totally ROCK bananagrams and FB scrabble. Should she ever challenge you, you must bring your best game!

  2. Alicia would probably leave me in the dust in scrabble, but I’m hereby challenging her to a game! I haven’t played in years and would love it. And thanks for linking to the Nt’l Geo kit – I’d love to get one for my parents. I’m part French-Canadian too, by the way!

  3. Living in a Spanish speaking country (Peru) has not only taught me a lot about the Spanish language, but also about the English language as well. Teaching English here has made it clear that Spanish is much more logical than English; for example, in Spanish the verb form tells you who is speaking. It is difficult to teach the verb “to do” in its auxiliary form to Spanish speakers as it is not used as an auxiliary verb in Spanish. Students here also have a hard time pronouncing words that begin in “th” as no Spanish words begin that way.
    One of the most interesting things I have learned is just how much Spanish is influenced by Arabic. This comes from when the Muslims moved into the Spanish peninsula. Many Spanish words begin with “al” (no, it is not short for Alicia) and are Spanish forms of Arabic words. Almacén (store house) comes from the Arabic al-makhzan and from this comes the English word magazine and the French word magasin. Also, the Spanish word Olé is derived from the Arabic “Allah”.
    And Feliz Cumpleaños to Annie. Watch out for that mantequilla on your nariz!

  4. I love this Al!
    As a fellow descendent from French-Canadian’s I’ve always been intrigued by my family’s use of
    “French” words. Like Pépé and Mémé which my family swears is the accurate term for Grandfather and Grandmother and our love of “Tootsié” which is our term for a French Canadian meat pie actually called “Toutiere.” It’s wonderful to see how words change throughout generations!
    Thanks again for a wonderful post. I’m really looking forward to the release of your book!

  5. I have a tattered dictionary that got me through college. I used to underline every word I looked up. It has a total of about 20 rolls of Scotch tape holding it together. I love that tattered book. Happy Birthday Annie.

  6. Not only do I share your interest in word origins, but also origins of weird traditions. I love the butter on the nose idea for imparting good luck upon the birthday girl/boy. Coming from an Italian family, this additional lipid upon the face might be deemed excessive in light of our naturally endowed skin. Instead, we just yell to (at?) each other for most of the event.

  7. I have that exact same dictionary on my shelf from high school too! It says Brigitte Jacqueline all over it as that was my “French” name (because Joelle was already sort of French (technically Hebrew) and boring!) It might say “I heart Boy George” on it too, but I’ll not confirm that!

    I’ll send my French Canadian pal over here to have a look at your post. Maybe he knows about the butter thing!

  8. When I first met Alicia, I found her ability to spell words very attractive. What? Allow me to explain. Spelling and I are sworn enemies. Always have been. Al and I started to date before computers corrected your spelling and all the rest. No on-line dictionaries back then. Dictionaries are often cumbersome, not conducive to active lifestyles, and, as a young man, I was always on the go. Alicia was my dictionary. Sometimes she still is! She is also my memory. “What’s that woman’s name in that movie with the thing?” I’ll ask, and Al usually knows what I’m talking about. This is very convenient. Al is still very good at spelling words. (Truly!) For all you young people out there who aren’t about to carry dictionaries around with you everywhere you go, pick your life partners carefully!

  9. excellent post! word origins are fascinating — i taught my students about hysteria & hysterectomy last week while discussing The Yellow Wallpaper. They were shocked!

    i love going to

    It answers all of my questions about words (and helps when I read Don DeLillo, since he’s a huge etymology nerd. his character names often have some kind of word origin awesomeness).

    My father in law says “Oh sugar!” when he stubs his toe or burns toast. It’s really just a way to avoid saying “Oh shit!” but maybe in a few generations our descendants will ask what it meant! haha

  10. I love this post, Alicia! Word origins fascinate me too. In college it would take me way too long to write papers because I had the (bad?) habit of checking after every sentence. Usually this was nothing but a time-waster, but sometimes learning word origins helped to take my writing to new and interesting places. I’ve found that etymology can be a useful crutch when you hit writer’s block. I even think I ended up being a philosophy major in college because so many philosophers are all so word-sensitive. My kind of geeks!

    Growing up, I found that many experssions that I thought were universal were actually Duffy-isms that aren’t used outside of my parents’ home (not to my knowledge, anyway). As a kid, whenever I drank too much soda or ate too much sugar, my dad would say, “uh oh…you’ll be buzzin like a natural cousin.” I have no idea where this expression comes from, but the first time I used that phrase with a friend, she looked at me like I had three heads.

  11. Hey, A! I have a similar background, in spite of the Irish last name: three out of four of my grandparents were French Canadian and I went to a small Catholic school run by French nuns for first through eighth grades and know all prayers and Christmas carols in French! Canadian French that is; it totally messed up my pronunciation when I went to public high school and took French; they were teaching Parisian pronunciation and I was totally lost! I loved knowing French, mostly because my maternal grandmother would speak it just to avoid speaking to my father and it seemed like a little mystery only a few of us shared (as an adult, I see the problem there, but I used to like it!). Au revoir!

  12. No, no, no butter on my nose! Yuck. (“Not Mommy’s face or hair” is the rule for playtime in our house–not because I’m made-up or well-styled, but I just don’t like surprise attacks around my head!)

  13. Wow !!!

    Ever since I can remember, we have rubbed butter on the noses of family members on their birthdays. I had no idea it was a French Canadian ‘thing’. I think I feel better knowing this is a tradition and not some whacky activity unique to my disfunctional clan.

    My mother has a special word she says when she stubs her toe…a few words actually. That’s when I figured out Tourette’s is also French.

    Vous etes tres interessant mon ami. Bon Anniversaire a ta soeur, aussi.

  14. I loved your little story! And mostly I loved your Scottish theory about butter “greased nose makes you too slippery for bad luck to stick to you.” …. Hahahha…. I wouldn’t be surprised if this theory is actually the true reason of it since most of the traditions circles around superstitions. I grew up in middle east for the first 20 years of my life and I am sure by now everybody knows that how serious middle eastern are about their cultures and traditions (they are so serious that they don’t even want to let go of the bad ones!!!!)… and the funny thing is if you look closely you see that big part of these traditions comes from superstitions.

    And you love for the words and their origins is fascinating to me. 
    Say happy birthday to your sister for me


  15. Well, Alicia, I can’t speak to family word origins. The closest would be the phrase my mom used to describe fat free milk direct from the cow – Blue John. I suppose that was what was left after the cream was removed to make butter or cottage cheese. I can speak to a game of scrabble that my friend, Duane, and I play periodically. It’s called Peel. I couldn’t remember the name one night and called it Strip. It’s a very short game when played poolside:-)

  16. I can assest to Ann Marie’s word puzzle skills, she kicked my butt in Bananagrams in Vermont this ski season- I blamed it on the really big drinks we were drinking at the time but she is legit! I would never attempt a Bessette girls word experience, you would leave me in the dust, I could do the color commentary for the duel!

    Love to read to your post every week-I have been reading them since the beginging and I am looking forward to the having the book come out. We should have a Sycamore Drive book signing party!

    Keep up the fun posts
    Ann Marie’s neighbor

  17. I can attest to Ann Marie’s word puzzle skills, she kicked my butt in Bananagrams in Vermont this ski season- I blamed it on the really big drinks we were drinking at the time but she is legit! I would never attempt a Bessette girls word experience, you would leave me in the dust, I could do the color commentary for the duel!

    Love to read to your post every week-I have been reading them since the beginging and I am looking forward to the having the book come out. We should have a Sycamore Drive book signing party!

    Keep up the fun posts
    Ann Marie’s neighbor

  18. Why didnt I think about this? I hear exactly what youre saying and Im so happy that I came across your blog. You really know what youre talking about, and you made me feel like I should learn more about this. Thanks for this; Im officially a huge fan of your blog.

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