‘Is the King sick?’ asked my mother, somewhat archly. It was a telephone conversation, but still, I could hear the raised eyebrows. As I was meant to.
‘Well,’ I haughtily replied, ‘he’s not well.’
All of which might lead the casual eavesdropper to conclude one of three things about my family, viz:
1. We are intimately acquainted with royalty.
2. We are barking mad.
3. We have taken conversational existentialism to a new level.
In fact, the above vignette is, word for word, a quote from The Madness of King George, long-since appropriated by my mother and myself as a means of announcing illness. Specifically, if one of us hears through a third party (dad) that the other is sick, our next phone conversation will, inevitaby, be kicked off by this exchage, with the healthy person inquiring after the King, and the other responding. This has been the case for the better part of a decade, ever since the film in question first aired on TV, although why this particular line stuck remains a mystery of genetics.
Similarly, should one of my immediate kin be stricken with cough, cold, flu or any other such phlegm-wrought permutation, they will be dubbed victims of the Quodge, the Dreaded Lurgy or, in dire circumstances, the Great Spon Plague. All three terms derive from the Goon Show and, by inference, the brain of Spike Milligan; and while lurgy isn’t uncommon slang in Australia and the UK, it’s still a rare bystander who recalls the other two. Nadgers, or to have a case of the galloping nadgers, is another family favourite, although our useage of nadger refers to any scab, rash or visible skin ailment rather than printing subroutines, as the internet might otherwise have you believe.
Were I still living at home and recouperating on my parents’ lounge, there is almost a 99% likelihood that my father would pop his head in and suggest that I knit up the ravelled sleeve of care, as per Macbeth – sound advice, but in a slightly different context to Shakespeare’s original. I might also be offered a horse tablet, otherwise known as a Vitamin C pill, to keep my strength up: we’ve called them horse tablets ever since dad once bought a bottle of extra-large ones, prompting mum to comment that they were certainly big enough for a horse.
But the road to recovery is paved with pitfalls. On occasion, unscrupulous sorts have alleged that the invalid in question might not, in fact, be as invalid as claimed, meeting requests for the fetching of lunch and hot chocolate with rolled eyes. What’s the matter – got a bone in your arm? my mother would ask, not entirely without sympathy. I’ve never understood this particular expression, as having a bone in your arm – several, in fact – is the normal state of affairs. Exactly how this might impede my ability to get something myself was never made clear, but the tone of delivery got the point across. What did your last slave die of? was another maternal favourite, until I thought of a decent answer: boredom.
There’s a much-touted bit of trivia which states that Eskimos have hundreds of different words for snow, because they’re surrounded by it. Not being an Eskimo, I can’t vouch for the truth of that statement, but it makes me wonder if, in the case of family phraseology, there’s a similar phenomenon at work. We’re not always sick, all the time – but when we do succumb to our yearly bug, it tends to take hold, and we like to describe it. Graphically. For us, it’s not enough just to say, ‘I’ve got flu’ – no. We have quodge. We have spon. We have lurgy. We knit up sleeves, eat horse tablets, gallop nadgers and quote King George (well, his advisors, anyway). All by itself, it’s a different lexicography – a malady of tongues.
Pity we’re not Pentecostal, really. We’d probably win points.