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The Hinge (Rhymes With Thing)

The Hinge (Rhymes With Thing)

Fun With English, Opus 2

Some words that we believe exist, really don't.

Our family dinner that Sunday held a certain amount of importance. It would be the first time in ages that we'd all be together at a time besides a major holiday — and the first time my two older sisters would meet my boyfriend, who by then was already an unofficial fiancé. Their opinion wasn't a deal breaker by any means, but I hoped they would like him as much as my parents did.

I needn't have worried. Within minutes of the introductions, my betrothed was comparing notes about me with my sisters and joking with their husbands as familiar comrades. He pitched in to help with the meal preparations, a gesture both noted and appreciated.

As we sat down to a good old-fashioned Sunday dinner, I finally relaxed, at ease after the warm reception he had received. Soon everyone was talking and laughing, whether as a group or in conversation with just one or two others. Things were going very well indeed.

In addition to the socializing, of course, there was actual eating to be done, and table manners to be observed. So it happened that rather than reaching for the butter myself, I asked my boyfriend to pass it to me.

"Could you hand me the hinge, please?"

He looked at me blankly.

"The butter hinge, it's just to your left."

Conversation quickly died away and silence fell over the table. Then the tittering began. Now it was my turn to be bemused.

We sat there stone-faced, my boyfriend and I, as the snickers grew to guffaws. My father dabbed at tears of laughter with his napkin, and one sister practically fell off her chair. Only my mother refrained from laughing, just a slight smile crossing her lips.

"Hinge is a family term. It isn't a real word," she told me quietly.

I was disbelieving. "Of course it's real — the butter hinge. I even know how to spell it, H-I-N-G-E. How could I know how to spell a word that wasn't real?"

"You just spelled hinge, like a door hinge," my sister the hyena pointed out.

"It's spelled the same but pronounced differently. They're called heteronyms," I explained, a touch of sarcasm in my voice reflecting my growing defensiveness. Even my intended was struggling to hide his obvious amusement at the situation.

My mother sighed. Uh oh, I knew that sigh.

"I'm sorry, we didn't intend to trick you. I assumed you knew, but now that I think about it, you really didn't have any way of knowing. It started long before you were born."

Naturally. What hadn't started long before I was born? Everything was laid out neatly for me: what our grandparents were called, the names given to pets, and apparently even a microcolloquialism for the butter dish. Such was the lot of the youngest child.

"But why 'hinge'?" I demanded, clinging to a thread of hope that someone would yet break down and admit it really was a word and the past few minutes had been a joke on me. I would have preferred five minutes of laughter at my expense over a lifetime of it.

"Oh, I started calling the butter dish 'the butter thing' years ago," my dad explained. "I don't remember why."

"Then one of your sisters couldn't pronounce the 'th' sound when she was little so it came out as 'hing.' We've called it that ever since," my mother concluded.

"Did you ever consider just calling it the butter — no dish or thing or hinge?!"

The lack of reply told me the answer: No, such a revolutionary notion had never crossed their minds.

Grudgingly, I began to accept it as truth that the word hinge as I had known and used it for years did not exist. And the truth didn't set me free, it made me angry. How many times, I wondered, had I requested the hinge when at a friend's house for dinner? What had they and their families thought of me?

Another idea took grip: How many other words-that-weren't-words did my family use? If they fabricated the name of a simple tangible item, what were they capable of when it came to esoteric concepts? Wait, was esoteric really a word?

"Every family has stories like this," my boyfriend reassured me. "You should hear some of stuff that has happened in mine — this is mild by comparison!"

The initial shock gradually wore off, and my indignation began to subside as well. Even so, I wanted my family to understand how their oversight in not informing me of an inside joke had made me feel, but decided to make my point in a good-natured way.

"Okay, hinge isn't a word," I admitted with an exaggerated shrug and roll of my eyes. "I suppose next you're going to tell me that canine isn't a word either, or discombobulated, or surreptitious, or commitance..."

The chuckling began again.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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