By Dr Susan Rennie

12 September 2016 - 17:20

Illustration of George's Marvellous Medicine (c) Quentin Blake
'Roald Dahl often starts with a word that children will know, then changes the ending or blends it with another word to make something new and funny.' Illustration ©

Quentin Blake

Roald Dahl is famous for his exuberantly inventive use of language. Dr Susan Rennie, chief editor of the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary, explains what his techniques teach us.

Don't take language too seriously

You may laugh when reading Roald Dahl, but you can also learn a lot about how language works. When we grow up, it's easy to forget how much fun it is to play with words, but the beloved children's author never lost that playfulness.

Although grown-up readers can appreciate his inventiveness, it is clear that children came first for Roald Dahl. He wouldn’t include a pun that went above a child's head, and his wordplay is always aimed at entertaining them.

The book in which he is at his most linguistically playful is undoubtedly The BFG. Language is a central theme in this book. It includes over 300 words that he invented, from 'biffsquiggled' to 'whizzpopping', in the language known as 'gobblefunk'.

Try translating Roald Dahl's inventions

The BFG (short for Big Friendly Giant) is the most translated of all Roald Dahl's books, and translators have had great fun coming up with versions of gobblefunk words that suit their own languages. For example, a 'trogglehumper' (a very bad dream) is translated into Italian as a 'troglogoblo', into Spanish as a 'jorobanoches' and into Dutch as a 'trollenklopper'. Meanwhile, 'frobscottle' (a tasty green fizzy drink) is 'frambouille' in French, 'Blubberwasser' in German and 'fuzzleglog' in Scots.

Create something new from everyday words

Roald Dahl’s inventions are rarely pure nonsense words. He often starts with a word that children will know, then changes the ending or blends it with another word to make something that is new and funny, but that children can still understand. So for example, wonderful becomes 'wondercrump', and kidnap becomes 'kidsnatch'. Sometimes he uses common English suffixes like –ful, –some and –wise, to make words like 'murderful', 'rotsome' and 'maggotwise'. At other times he adapts the meaning of an everyday word to make an 'extra-usual' one. For example, to whoosh means to move very quickly, and he makes this into 'whooshey' which describes a very strong smell (as if the scent had whooshed right up your nostrils).

Roald Dahl also loves what are called portmanteau words, where you blend two or more words together to combine their meanings. This is a common way of forming words in English. Take for example brunch (breakfast plus lunch), motel (motor plus hotel) and smog (smoke plus fog). In the invented language of gobblefunk, something 'delumptious' is both delicious and scrumptious; and giants don’t swallow and then gulp, they do it all at once in a single 'swallop'.

Imagine an animal nobody's ever seen

The invented words are not just in The BFG. There is a whole bestiary of imaginary creatures which Willy Wonka needs to make his magic potions in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, including the 'proghopper', 'slimescraper', and 'wilbatross'. Roald Dahl doesn’t explain exactly what these animals are or what they look like, but that is part of the fun. Does a 'slimescraper' collect slime to eat, or is it covered in slimy skin? Does a 'proghopper' look more like a frog or a kangaroo? It can be great fun for children to try to describe or draw these creatures, and to invent their own names using the same techniques of word-building.

Consider what's in a name

Like Dickens, who was one of his favourite authors, Roald Dahl delights in creating names that hint at the nature of his characters, and often his nastiest characters have the funniest names. We get an inkling from his name that greedy Augustus Gloop will come to a sticky end in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and that Aunt Spiker in James and the Giant Peach is far from gentle and cuddly. In Matilda, the villainous headmistress Miss Trunchbull’s surname suggests a mixture of truncheon and bull or bully, so fits her perfectly; and the school that she runs, Crunchem Hall, sounds like 'crunch 'em', which is what she would like to do to her pupils. Dahl also uses one of his favourite techniques, alliteration, to create memorable names for both good characters (Willy Wonka and Bruce Bogtrotter) and bad (the farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean in Fantastic Mr Fox).

Have fun with a pun (or a mispronunciation)

As well as making up words that are fun to say, Roald Dahl loved making jokes from puns or mispronunciations. The BFG uses lots of spoonerisms, which are made by swapping the sounds at the start of two words, so he says 'catasterous disastrophe' (for disastrous catastrophe) and 'jipping and skumping' (for skipping and jumping). The most elaborate example is one where he brilliantly works his own surname into the mispronunciation 'Dahl’s Chickens' (for Charles Dickens), whose books the BFG loves to read.

All this playfulness is enormously valuable. Roald Dahl’s writing can instil a love of language and wordplay that will stay with children through their lives. It encourages them to appreciate the richness and variety of language, but also to look at it critically. Why after all do we say frying pan, not 'sizzlepan' like the BFG? Why do the words that start with 'grob-' or 'trog-' always mean unpleasant things?

Children can also pick up literary techniques like alliteration and simile ('dead as a dingbat', 'fast as a fizzlecrump') and onomatopoeia ('lickswishy' and 'uckyslush'), which can help them be more creative in their own writing. Roald Dahl once said that he didn’t want his readers to get so bored that they decided to close the book and watch television instead. His joyfully inventive use of language is one of the ways that he ensured that would never happen.

13 September 2016 is Roald Dahl's 100th birthday. Teachers, you can access free resources for the Roald Dahl Dictionary on the Oxford University Press website.

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