The Hawaiians have 108 words to describe fishnets. The Somali language has 46 words for camels (many of which depict their temperament and physicality), and the Inuits have at least 50 ways to describe the varying conditions of snow.
In each of these cases—fishnets, camels, snow—the words signal an importance and preoccupation with the well-being and survival of each culture. And being so, there is recognition that one word can’t possibly define all situations and sentiments. Our lives are more complex and nuanced than that.
Yet, the English language is woefully inadequate when it comes to describing something as significant and precious as family. Of the roughly 172,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, we only have a few other words for family such as “kin” and “tribe,” and they all denote people who are related by blood or marriage—primarily parents and their children.
We all know there is more to family than DNA.
Family can be those whom we count on and trust, like the person who cuts our hair, fixes our car without charging an arm and a leg, and makes our vanilla lattes (extra soy milk) each morning with a smile on their face. They are doctors and bank tellers, babysitters and exercise instructors, people who take care of us in small and big ways, making the transactional personal.
They also can be the people we commute to work with each day, our professional colleagues, members of our church/temple/synagogue, and the people sitting next to us at our child’s sporting event.
Family can be close friends, the ones who have our back, guard our secrets, revel in our joys, and show up when we need them. They are the people with whom we share a past and the ones we can’t imagine a future without.
Which brings me to Homecoming, an event that often feels more like a giant family reunion than a celebration of the College’s traditions and pride, although that is certainly a component of the weekend. I’ve heard alumni say that when they return to campus and reconnect with old friends, it’s like no time has passed. There’s something comforting about being part of a steadfast community in a world of uncertainty. But isn’t that what families do?
It’s an ideal our students have absorbed. During Take Back the Night, an international event held to raise awareness and support for victims of sexual assault, students held a candlelight vigil outside Colton Chapel. One of the student speakers reminded the group that when they came to Lafayette they joined a family and therefore agreed to take care of one another. “We signed a contract,” she said, albeit one in our hearts.
It reminded me of a quote from the movie Lilo and Stitch: “‘Ohana’ means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
If we had a vocabulary of 108 words for “family,” we would be richer and more intelligent in our understanding of the relationships that mold our humanity.
Therefore, may I suggest a new word for “family.” Lafayette.
Kathleen Parrish P’17 P’20