Barbarella
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If you wish to converse with me, define your terms. — Voltaire

"We could have watched a movie in the time it’s taken you to pick one,” I said, failing in my attempt to make my tone sound more playful than provoking. I wasn’t surprised when David barked at me in response or when he threw up his hands and suggested I take over or when he then grumbled about my lack of appreciation for how frustrating a task it is to toggle between On Demand, Netflix, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB in the quest to find one film that lay within the intersection of our four-person Venn diagram.

At first, like a child who has inadvertently discovered the power of curse words, I was bemused and entertained by David’s overreaction to my taunt. When I remembered we weren’t alone, I was suddenly embarrassed. “Pinky swear,” I said.

“That’s not fair,” David argued. “You can’t just use that whenever —”

“Pinky swear,” I repeated, hissing the words through clenched teeth while widening my eyes to further punctuate my demand that he cease and desist. At this, David relented. He gave an indignant huff and resumed his search while I set about salvaging what agreeable air was left in the room. With an unnatural infusion of perkiness, I suggested we skip the movie idea and work on a jigsaw puzzle — an activity we could enjoy while talking to one another, thus maximizing our quality time. My mother-in-law agreed with enthusiasm that this was a fine idea.

David and I had established the code phrase on the plane, shortly after we’d reached our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet. “We need to make a pact,” I had said. David was in, even before he knew what I was talking about. He lifted his right arm and extended his pinky. I raised my pinky and linked it with his. “It’s tough to find alone time when we’re houseguests. It’s really important to me that this is a tension-free — as tension-free as it can be — visit. So, let’s promise each other right now that if we disagree on something, we’ll wait until we’re alone to discuss it. The last thing I want to do is make your parents feel uncomfortable by hearing us bicker. Okay?”

David nodded and tightened his grip on my pinky. “Pinky swear,” he said.

“Pinky swear,” I repeated. “That’s great, we can use that — if either one of us wants to table a discussion or request alone time with the other, we can just say ‘pinky swear,’ and we’ll know what we mean.” We held each other’s gaze, and pinkies, until the flight attendant appeared to top off our glasses of wine.

I thought it was a solid plan, a plausible method for maintaining the sanity of home while away. But in practice, our code turned out to be mostly ineffective. Two words are not enough to capture all the nuances of communication.

One morning, while sitting at the kitchen table (the location of our “office” at David’s parents’ house), I wanted to confer privately with my man regarding how we planned to thank his folks for the free room and board. The night before, we’d discussed the possibility of cooking dinner for them or taking them to one of the few restaurants open on Martha’s Vineyard during the off-season. It wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss the matter where we sat, within earshot of his folks, and we would raise questions if we were both to suddenly stand and leave the common area. Short of passing notes, sending email, or — even worse — whispering, I couldn’t think of any way for us to reach a consensus in time to beat the question I knew was about to be asked by David’s hyper-organized mother — that is, what we’d like to eat for each of our three remaining nights.

A few years ago, David and I had begun learning Japanese in preparation for our trip to Japan. At the time, I’d joked that it would be great if we could employ the exotic and largely unknown language for the purpose of encrypting our conversations, the way David’s parents sometimes switch to their native Hungarian. As I sat there trying to figure out how to get the answer I wanted, I could have kicked myself under the table for not keeping up with my lessons.

When I was sure no one else was looking, I turned to David and mouthed the word, “Dinner,” then raised my brows in question. He shrugged. “Out?” I silently queried. David shook his head. So, dinner in it was. But I’d still have to wait until we were alone to discuss the what and the how of it.

“There’s got to be a better way,” I said to David the next morning as we dressed in our room. “What about Double Dutch?” David shook his head. I was fluent in the coded speak even before I read that Sweet Valley Twins book in which the perky blonde heroines’ father teaches them the secret language referred to as “Ithig.” I’d recently taught it to Michelle, my sister-in-law, who’s beginning to get the hang of it. My sisters — especially Heather, from whom I learned how to speak Double Dutch — are fluent. It was the only way we could secretly communicate under our parents’ noses (although I have a sneaking suspicion that my father, who majored in linguistics, quickly grew hip to the code).

“Cithigome ithigon, Dithigavithigid, ithigit’s nithigot thithigat hithigard,” I said.

“I didn’t catch a word of that, so no,” David said. “What about Ubbi Dubbi?”

“Never heard of that one. How’s it go?”

“UbI lubove yubou,” David demonstrated.

“Nah, wouldn’t work, I tend to trip up on Bs.”

“What about igpay atinlay?”

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I hate that one. Totally impossible to understand. Maybe we can work out some kind of Morse code using facial tics. Oh, wait, you can’t move your brows independently of one another. You ever heard of Ong? O Nong Gong?”

“Too much spelling,” David said.

“We’re just going to have to learn Japanese,” I said with a sigh. I sat on the bed and gestured for David to join me. “Okay, let’s make a pact,” I said. David lifted his arm and extended his pinky. “Let’s promise each other that when we get home, we’re going to break out the Rosetta Stone and really try to learn Japanese.” I joined my pinky with David. “Okay?”

“Pinky swear,” David said, tightening his grip.

“Pinky swear,” I repeated.

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Comments

sdcharley Dec. 17, 2009 @ 5:01 a.m.

Great article and video! (as always)

I remember hearing Double Dutch back in elementary school and never being able to understand WTF people were saying. I guess I wasn't part of the 'in' crowd who was taught/shown/explained the secret code, so for that I thank you for breaking it down. However, I don't think I could ever master it as well as you and your sister.

ONG - Never heard of it until your article. Interesting code, but way to difficult to truly follow at a fast pace.

The one David suggested - again, never heard of it..but I'm with you...too difficult to learn, understand and follow without some personal instruction.

igpay atinlay - Now that was my code of choice back in the day, but it seemed everybody understood it so it defeated the purpose of being a 'secret' code or language.

I think in today's culture secret verbal codes have been lost to the ease text messaging. Rebecca and I have used texting during social gatherings both with friends and family to communicate secretly and it is much easier to keep things private. When asked "what are you doing?" we simple respond with "Tweeting" or "Barb posted a tweet" or something along those lines.

Thanks again for a great column! Talk with you soon! Charley

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a2zresource Dec. 22, 2009 @ 2:07 p.m.

The whole idea of the pinky swear thing as conflict resolution is beautiful on its own.

It would be hard to use Japanese as a secret-code language downtown, as there are 'way too many Japanese students of private English language schools wandering around on mid-day study breaks to make it practical! Still, since most of us are too American to bother with foreign languages, it certainly has practical applications for, say, a lawyer and her client in the Hall of Justice?

Irony: any success in using Esperanto as a secret-code language (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto).

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