Dear Dave

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Herding housedads

Dear Dave,

I've obviously been thinking too hard about inventing new collective nouns - the boys started doing it the other day without any prompting.

They were having an argument about exactly how many cows were necessary to constitute a herd. Lewis thought any number greater than one would do. Fraser was pretty sure that more than that was required. He settled on five. They got into the kind of legalistic argument that only small children, EU regulators and medieval theologians can really get worked up over. It went on for some time. I mean, how many cows do you need for a herd? Is it the same as the number of sheep required for a flock? Maybe, but almost certainly fewer than the number of fish you need for a school. Probably more than the number of lawyers you need for an excess, though...

Eventually Fraser got distracted by a tangential thought that glittered brightly in his brain. He followed it. "Can you have a herd of anything else?" he asked. "How about chickens?"

"Er, I think that might be a flock," I said but I wasn't entirely sure. In fact, I was pretty sure that was wrong. Was it a brood? A gaggle? A peck? A Kentucky fry?

I decided to answer his first question. "You can have a herd of elephants."

"What about monkeys?" said Lewis. "Can you have a herd of monkeys?"

"Er..." I said, images becoming crossed in my head, and a herd of giant, hairy gorilla things (with trunks) stampeding across my mental savanna.

Fraser answered before I had a chance. "A banana! It should be a banana of monkeys!"

Both boys found this highly amusing. There is something about monkeys that children (and many adults) find instantly funny. The combination of monkeys and bananas somehow just adds to the hilarity. Fraser and Lewis fell about laughing. (Luckily, they didn't think of an even more hilarious pairing. If anyone had mentioned a 'fart' of monkeys, for instance, the boys would probably have wet themselves).

I started to say that a banana of monkeys sounded a bit odd but I couldn't remember what the right word was and I stopped. Why not a banana of monkeys? It's as good as anything, and they might as well give it a go - language is the ultimate democracy, after all. Get enough people to use a word and it becomes part of the language overnight; leave a word alone for fifty years and it dies.

If the kids want to try making 'banana' a collective noun, that's up to them. Doubtless some teacher will persuade them otherwise at some point, but you never know. Personally, I have at least two attempts at dictionary change on the go at the moment. The first is to make the singular of dice to be 'dice' rather than 'die'. Why? I don't know. I'd just prefer it that way. The campaign seems to be going quite well, anyway.

The other small change to the English language I'm working on is the popularisation of the word 'housedad'. (You may want to join in this one). Since this is the fiftieth letter I've sent you, it seems somehow appropriate that I should explain why I call myself a housedad rather than any of the other options.

I've always thought 'househusband' is long winded and doesn't really describe what I do. I was a househusband back in those distant days before children. I studied, I wrote, I did the hoovering and, on occasion, I sat around playing computer games and ate biscuits.

That is another life. How could I ever have been so idle, working only eight hours a day?

Nope, househusband doesn't cut it. Nor does 'stay at home parent'. My kids don't yell, 'Parent!' at three in the morning when they want some attention. (Not yet, anyway). They yell, 'Daddy!' because they know that's what's most likely to get results. Of course, they could yell, 'Mummy!' but they'd still get Daddy. In fact, they could yell anything from, 'I want my cucumber!' to 'Cheese weasel!' to 'I've eaten my pillow!' and they'd still get Daddy (as they know from experience). Actually yelling, 'Daddy!' gives them a sense of victory as soon as I enter the room - their first demand has been met, surely it's only a matter of time before they manage to pester their way to the vegetable/cheddar rodent/emergency medical procedure of their choice.

Stay at home parent is no good - I have earned the title of 'dad'.

'Stay at home dad' doesn't really work either, however. I know what it's like to stay at home - before children, I was not just a househusband, I was a 'stay at home husband'. It could be several days until I was forced to leave the front door in search of bread or milk. At that time, my study (translation: cupboard with a computer) didn't even have a window. I would emerge blinking onto the street and wonder at the contrast levels and high definition visuals. If I'd been playing much Resident Evil, I would scan the pavement for zombies before proceeding. I really didn't get out much.

These days, with one child at parent and toddler, one at nursery and one at school, I barely see my home. I'm forever trotting up and down the road with some subset of children in tow. And that's before taking into account clubs and classes, shopping trips and visits to the swing park. Stay at home? You've got to be joking.

Of the few remaining options, I quite like 'homedad' - it's more general than 'housedad' and suggests a happy family sitting round the kitchen table. It's cosy and it makes good sense.

Still, I don't call myself a homedad.

The thing is, English isn't about making sense. Try reading through, though, cough and bough quickly and you'll know what I'm talking about. English is crazy. Most native speakers are used to the craziness, however, and don't notice. New words need to blend. For some reason, 'homedad' just doesn't (in my part of the UK, at least). It makes people do a double-take. 'You're a what?' I find 'housedad' simply works better. It sounds close enough to 'housewife' to slip past people's internal made-up-word-detector and it's two or three sentences down the line before the alarm bells start to ring inside their heads. It's too late by then, of course - I might be a nutter but they're already having a conversation with me. All they can do is open their eyes wide and back away slowly. (Top tip: Getting a small child to hug their leg makes it much harder for them to escape).

So 'housedad' it is. It's a word that describes what I do but doesn't sound too odd. It might just catch on...

That only leaves one further decision. What should be the collective noun for us? I suppose, if it really takes five of us together to justify the use of such a word, then we probably don't need one. Or maybe an 'unlikelihood' of housedads is the way to go? Some old-fashioned individuals might suggest an 'aberration'. Maybe it would even depend what kind of day we'd all had. Perhaps a 'fulfilment'? Or, if we've been tearing out our hair, a 'baldness'?

Let's face it, though, if someone discovered five of us together in a room one day, I know exactly what we'd be. We'd be a 'surprise'. The only possible way of avoiding that would be if we had our children with us. Then...

Then we'd be a 'pride'.

Yours in a woman's world,


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