Facebook asked, “Without saying your age, what is something you remember from your childhood that a younger person would not understand?” The answers were a bit startling. The pleasant surprise was realizing that I’m not the oldest person on Facebook, by far. But it was disconcerting to see how much of my youth has become obsolete.
At least half of the responses came from people my age, reminding me of rotary phones and party lines, black-and-white TVs and rabbit ears, roller skate keys, cigarette machines, petticoats, pen pals . . . the list went on and continues to grow in perpetual FB fashion.
Dozens of entries were things I’d heard about from my parents and their peers, like milk home-delivered in bottles, tin can stilts, radio dramas and movie serials. A few of these older folks were more rueful than wistful, posting one-word answers including manners, respect and morality.
The online discussion got me thinking about cliches and common phrases that aren’t so common anymore. Would my granddaughters understand what it means to sound like a broken record, drop a dime on someone or burn the midnight oil? I’m sure they’re familiar with the “cc” option on their email, but I doubt that they know it stands for “carbon copy” and I’m sure they’ve never seen a sheet of carbon paper. Even the word “clockwise” might puzzle them, as all the timepieces in their young lives are digital.
Then I began mulling over pidgin (Hawaii Creole English, or HCE) words and phrases that have fallen out of use during my lifetime. Like American English, my favorite language is constantly evolving — or devolving, depending on your perspective. Sadly, it seems that HCE is moving away from its very basis of HCE, its multicultural roots. Everyday words borrowed from immigrant workers’ languages are used less often than Mainland urban slang in today’s pidgin.
Our kids no longer “go botcha,” (Japanese slang for “bathe”) nor do they “pio (“extinguish” in Hawaiian) da light” when leaving a room. And I’ll bet none of them have been told to “get on the kinipopo” the way my 3rd-grade teacher, Mrs. Pacheco, used to admonish us. Kinipopo is the Hawaiian word for ball, as you may have guessed.
Some pidgin terms, like the English examples cited above, are no longer used because the things they describe no longer exist, like the manapua man, who peddled his Chinese steamed pork buns while strolling through the neighborhood, baskets hanging from a stick across his shoulders.
We didn’t have a manapua man in our neighborhood, but I do remember the buta kaukau man. Buta is the Japanese word for pig, and you probably know what kaukau means, although you might not be aware that it isn’t the Hawaiian word for food. Kaukau is an original HCE word, most likely derived from the Chinese Pidgin slang “chow chow,” for food, or the Hawaiian word for table, “pakaukau,” which originally referred to a long mat on which food was placed. So, buta kaukau means pig food in pidgin, and the buta kaukau man was the pig farmer who would come around once a week and collect garbage to make slop for his livestock. Every family had a 5-gallon can outside the back door, into which all food scraps were dumped. I remember being very careful to not throw anything into the garbage that might upset a pig’s digestive system, like bones or plastic wrap.
While I do prefer my garbage disposal to the smelly buta kaukau can, I’m feeling nostalgic, probably due to a recent milestone birthday. This weekend, I might just give in to the urge to dig out my old marble collection, dust off my kini and bambuchas, and challenge someone to a 5 holes match. I’d better get on the kinipopo and practice a bit first.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.