With some great exceptions, most kids have a hard time striking up a good conversation with their grandparents — something that’s become all the more obvious in this era when grandparents and grandkids haven’t been able to meet in person. The origin story of how a couple of grandparents wrote So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off should give hope to anyone wanting to solidify intergenerational relationships in their family — and the book itself can even help them do so.
Husband and wife writers Shirley Kobliner and Harold Kobliner are sadly no longer with us to tell how they worked for 13 years to put together this book, but their daughter, financial writer Beth Kobliner, has been taking their masterpiece across the finish line. She got on the phone with SheKnows recently to recount how this book came to be. It all began when they were invited to read to Beth’s son’s kindergarten class.
“My mom started to read, and she noticed the kids begin to squirm around,” Kobliner recalls. “And my mother, who was a great educator, calmly put down the book. She said, ‘Hey, kids, it looks like you have ants in your pants.’ And they started laughing hysterically. They thought that was the weirdest thing ever heard.”
That inspired the retired chemistry teacher and principle to write a list of all the expressions they could think of, and then to search for others. Being of an earlier generation, they didn’t do this via Google, and they didn’t document on the work on their Notes app. Instead, they spoke to people, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and beyond, and they wrote it all down on the cardboard scraps that came with their dry cleaning. They came up with the goal of collecting 10,000 expressions.
“When they first started, we were like, ‘OK, Grandma and Grandpa, whatever you want to do, sounds fun,’” Kobliner recalls. “But then we all became addicted and we really got drawn in. And once they got to 8,000, my dad said, ‘I’m worried we’re not going to get to 10,000. I’m going to give each grandkid a dollar’ for each expression that my parents didn’t have in the book. And then after two weeks, my dad’s like, ‘I’m not doing this; I’m going broke,’ because, of course, all their grandkids started sending in expressions.”
Bribes aside, the project did something to change the way Kobliner’s children and parents related to each other.
“When my kids talked to them on the phone, instead of being like, ‘How’s school?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘How’s your teacher?’ ‘Fine,’ they would be very eager to call and say, ‘OK, Grandpa, we have six expressions. Let’s go through the list and talk it over!’”
Shirley and Harold, who were married for 65 years, continued this field research together until Shirley’s death in 2016. Harold then thought he would stop it altogether, but when friends and family gathered to remember Shirley, they couldn’t help sharing new expressions with him. So, to keep her memory alive, he kept on going. He finished So to Speak, and lived to see the book get a prominent publisher (Simon & Schuster imprint Tiller Press), a cover, and vintage illustrations. He was 90 when he passed away last May, just months before the book’s release.
Kobliner says her father used stop people on the street to promote her own books, such as Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even if You’re Not), so she’s returning the favor now. She demonstrated how fun So to Speak can be for people of any generation. It really is a book of lists, with the expressions sorted into dozens of categories like food, life and death, body, and numbers, based their literal words (“A corny joke,” “A kernel of hope”). That means this is something you flip through and read to discover new things or rediscover old ones. It’s not meant to be a reference guide for looking up specific phrases, their origins, ortheir meanings. It’s quite the opposite of the instant-gratification of searching for something on the internet, and that’s a good thing.
“It’s a sort of whimsical but very real look at language,” Kobliner says. “It’s nice to have something that is non-controversial.”
Because of its whimsical nature, Kobliner says this collection is actually perfect for playing word games with family members. The book lists 25 suggested games for the reader. They range from “Fast Talker,” in which players yell out as many expressions in a category as they can within a minute, to “Tomato, To-mah-to, Potato, Po-tah-to,” in which intergenerational teams have to come up with old fashioned expressions (“sweetie pie”) and their modern equivalent (“BAE”). You can also visit SoToSpeakBook.com for other games.
In a time when we’re so glued to our screens and the constant worry they give us, thinking about wordplay can give us all a break. And on the other hand, these games might also liven up your next family Zoom.
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