Unbeknownst to my wife, Sara, I have been secretly studying and am close to earning my master’s in Begayisms.

My wife’s maiden name is Begay and I soon discovered that her family has their own little ways of speaking, with little tidbits of speech or movie quotes that could confuse an outsider. Especially a Narragansett Indian from Rhode Island.

But before I could tackle Begayisms I first had to learn to navigate through Navajo. When I first moved to the reservation I would ask for directions and notice that people would stick out their lips. I thought they were making some joke about me having big lips or something. It took me several months before someone explained to me that Navajos aren’t supposed to use their fingers to point, so they use their lips instead.

Another misunderstanding was my thinking that the Navajo Nation Council laughed at everything. During meetings someone would speak and then say “ahe’hee’,” which sounded to me like “hee-hee.” I’d think to myself, That wasn’t even funny, so why are they laughing?

Turns out “ahe’hee’ ” means “thank you.”

Soon I was able to learn some Navajo words. So if my wife says “`áshii” I know enough to pass her the salt. Although sometimes when I’m not paying attention, I’ll pass the salt when she says “`áshii likan” (sugar).

And if I’m out hiking in Jellystone Park and a Navajo runs past and yells “shash!” I know he’s not telling me to be quiet. Shash is a bear.

Once I had a reasonable understanding of Navajo I thought I was ready to become a good in-law.

But Sara and her family have their own Begayspeak.

I spent my first 45 years only using the word “wack-o” once that I can recall. It was in college around 1986, and I was walking back to my dorm one winter night when I slipped on the ice and banged my head so hard I thought I had a concussion. When I was describing it to my brother later I said I fell and my head went “wacko” on the ice.

Now, I had heard of the word wack-o before. I believe it was on the old 1960s “Batman” series. “Wack-o!” was tucked in between “Ka-Pow!” and “Zowee!”

But in Begayism something wack-o is silly, like the groan-worthy puns I delight in uttering. This is not to be confused with “cheeeap,” which is reserved for an unusual observation or corny joke.

When I say something that makes my wife skeptical, she will reply, “Riiight.” This is from the Goldie Hawn movie “Wildcats.” For example, we will be going to Walmart and I’ll say, “I’m not going to buy any candy today.” And Sara raises an eyebrow and replies, “Riiight.”

Movie lines routinely work their way into Begayspeak.

Say I walk into a room and want Sara’s attention; I might say, “Breaker, breaker, little mate!” (from “Rescuers Down Under” ). If she’s busy at the moment, Sara will make an exaggerated coughing sound and say, “I’ll have to call you back” – imitating a funny scene from “Stakeout.”

Life is never dull with my khaleesi.

You just never know when a conversation between Sara and her siblings, Lolo, Kymmano or Big Bloke, will include snippets from “Fargo,” “The Commitments,” “Making Mr. Right,” or “Bridget Jones.”

I’ve tried to introduce my own Hopkinsisms to the mix, but so far “Hulk smash puny human” hasn’t caught on.

John Christian Hopkins, an award-winning novelist and humor columnist, is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. See his writings at

From John Christian Hopkins.