An Illustrated Guide To The Imaginary Words Only Your Family Knows

That embarrassing moment when you use a word you’ve known since you were a kid, only to realize your mom made it up.

Some families share recipes or obscure holiday traditions. But a surprising number of others pass down something else: Imaginary words. In the Made Up Words Project, artist Rinee Shah is attempting to capture as much of this familial vocabulary as possible in a collection of illustrated definitions.


The project was inspired by some pop culture trivia. “This is so nerdy, but I was watching an episode of West Wing, and somebody–maybe Rob Lowe’s character–says a word in a meeting and then realizes it’s just a word his mother made up,” Shah says. “I thought, I bet that happens to people all the time.”

She wanted to work on a project about family. Two years ago, Shah created another project called Seinfood— drawing food from Seinfeld episodes– and loved the fact that it prompted people to share the drawings with parents and siblings.

“What I liked most about it was that people had this shared nostalgia for the Seinfeld moments that they grew up watching together. In this project, I liked the idea that people are starting to call family members to remember words that they all used,” she says.

Some of the words are obviously unique, like “The Quincy,” a name that one family gave to a small burn mark on their bathtub. (“Somehow, it became known as ‘The Quincy,’” the person submitting the word writes. “We tried to avoid touching it. I remember sitting in the tub terrified of it. My mom would say ‘It’s just The Quincy, it won’t hurt you.'”)

Other words have already turned out to be regional, like “gotchies,” which is apparently a common way to refer to underpants in Western Pennsylvania. “I think it’s inevitable that some regional words will make it on there,” Shah says. Still, she’s hoping that most submissions will be words that randomly find a place only in a small group of friends or family.

When a submission comes in, Shah makes her own interpretation of the word. “I think that’s kind of the fun of it,” she says. “I’m trying to get them done kind of quickly; I think if you do labor over it, it loses the charm.”


So far, Shah has drawn about 25 illustrations–starting with submissions from her own friends and family–and now that she’s opened it up to the world, plans to do as many as possible.

“I just want to keep it going and see how many I can do,” she says. “I’m trying to only spend about 25 minutes on each one so that I can just knock them out really fast and just create this growing catalog.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.