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 urbandictionary.com 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.
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