Why Kids Are the Ultimate Masters of Wordplay

by Beth Lincoln

Photo credit: Caia Image, Collection Mix, Getty Images

The word “fillabob” means “to murder someone with a fish.” Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it before — it was invented by a child at a school I visited in California just last month.

I had just finished my first presentation as a debut author when this word was spoken into existence. For context, every character in my book The Swifts is named from the Family Dictionary, so I asked the kids to suggest a word we could use as a character’s name. “Fillabob” was the first suggestion I received, and I was halfway through saying, “That’s not a word,” before I caught myself.

Working with kids, you can sometimes pinpoint the moment an idea happens, like there’s a circuit connecting somewhere in their brain that makes their eyes light up. Kids make connections constantly and learn at a rate that far outpaces adults. They use guesswork, inference, and invention to improve their linguistic skills, leaping from one idea to another and often making errors in the process.

In tiny children, we cherish these mistakes. Every overextension, like calling all animals “dog,” or the misuse of irregular verbs, like saying “goed away,” is delightful. Since their desire to communicate with us outstrips their ability, they get creative. For example, pointing at a soda they shook until it exploded and explaining, “Drink angry.”

Small children develop these abilities through play. Play encourages creativity while also creating a safe space to make mistakes. Sometimes, I think we teach early language skills the same way we teach improv: we say, “Yes, and?” We ask for elaboration, clarification, and expansion. Should we put the dog on the boat? What noise does the truck make? VROOM? Uh-oh, who made the soda mad?

By age nine (roughly the age of the child who coined “fillabob”), children have passed the steepest learning curve of language acquisition. However, the ability to infer, invent, and make connections through play is still extremely active. Unfortunately, adults are less likely to play along and more likely to correct. This is disheartening for kids and a waste of their skills. Children love to play with language, and they’re good at it. When I put obscure words like bumbershoot and snollygoster on the board during presentations, children whisper them under their breaths without prompting, eager to explore and laugh at the sound. The poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll remains popular with kids because it’s fun to say, and it uses their connective skills to the fullest:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe

Sure, slithy isn’t an actual word, but it sounds like sly, slimy, filthy, and slither. It’s possible to infer the meaning from sound and familiarity with other words — something kids do instinctively as their vocabularies expand. And they love to invent words themselves. When we aren’t policing their language, we’re sprinting to keep up, generating a dozen articles a month titled “Translating Generation Alpha” and “2000 Slang Words Every Parent Should Know!!!” Kids shorten words, obv, and they smoosh them together into portmanteaus like a wordwich, and they experiment with hyperefficient viralingual compounds despite not knowing the etymological origins of their ingredients.

So, when a kid suggested “fillabob,” it was in this spirit of play. It was a kid following the impulse to create. Halfway through telling them it wasn’t a word, I corrected myself and said that although it wasn’t a word before, it was now, because all words are made up. And then I asked what it meant. Yes, and?

“Fillabob” might not have an official etymology. Still, if I had to use the skills I first honed with “Jabberwocky” as a child, I’d say it comes from the English fillet via the French filet — I associate it with a “fillet of fish” or the verb “to fillet.” This makes total sense, seeing as it’s about fish-based murder. Whether this was a deliberate pun by the child in question or a happy accident, I don’t know. But I’ve learned not to underestimate the humor of children.

I recently had a conversation with my 9-year-old cousin where she talked about Einstein working at McDonald’s, and hours later, I realized she’d been trying to construct an E=MC2 pun. Even well out of toddlerhood, a child’s desire to communicate sometimes outstrips their ability.

But the reverse is also true. I’m pretty sure the “bob” part of “fillabob” is there because children find the name “Bob” funny. I don’t know why that is, but that’s fine. If we engage with kids in the spirit of play, maybe they can help us learn.