Roald Dahl is famous for his exuberantly inventive use of language. 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’.
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?
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.
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.
What’s your favourite Dahl story or poem? Let us know via the comments box.
A version of this article was published on the British Council’s Voices Magazine blog in September 2016.