Roald Dahl’s gobblefunk: inventing a whole new language

From whiffswiddle to frobscottle, the author invented almost 400 new words, not to mention a host of characters, places and foods. A new dictionary gathers them all together

For Roald Dahl, language was a bendy business, including inventing an entire vocabulary, gobblefunk, for his Big Friendly Giant. Illustration: Quentin Blake courtesy of the Roald Dahl Literary Estate

For Roald Dahl, language was a bendy business, including inventing an entire vocabulary, gobblefunk, for his Big Friendly Giant. Illustration: Quentin Blake courtesy of the Roald Dahl Literary Estate

 

Can you tell a snozzcumber from a snozzwanger? What would you say to a quogwinkle? And have you ever been (even a tiny bit) biffsquiggled?

For the children’s writer Roald Dahl, language was a bendy business. His books are chock-full of offbeat inventions and cheeky word games, and he famously created an entire vocabulary, gobblefunk, for his Big Friendly Giant.

These creative circumlocutions have now been gathered together for the first time. As part of the celebrations for the centenary of Dahl’s birth, Oxford University Press has produced The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary.

It took the lexicographer Susan Rennie, who edited the dictionary, five years to track down and make sense of Dahl’s mad menagerie. Alongside Dahl’s made-up words – a whopping 391 of them – she includes words and phrases which were in common use when he was writing but have now fallen out of fashion; “blithering” and “rapscallion”, for example.

Rennie’s research also turned up a number of delightful Dahl-isms, such as “gumplewink”, “grobbled” and “flubboxed”, which never actually made it into his books. She can only guess at what they might mean – although let’s face it, we’ve all felt a bit flubboxed at one time or another.

It’s part of the joy of Dahl’s language that his words sound vaguely familiar, yet distinctly mischievous. Scribbling away on pads of yellow American legal paper, he would swap letters around and chop words up so that he could splice them together again in startling combinations.

He adored alliteration, producing such perfectly-formed insults as “grizzly old grunion”. He also came up with some inspired spoonerisms; “mideous harshes” for “hideous marshes” and “Dahl’s Chickens” for Charles Dickens.

“Roald Dahl built his new words on familiar sounds, so that children could still make sense of them,” Rennie explains. “He also used sounds that children love to say, like squishous and squizzle, or fizzlecrump and fizzwiggler, which makes his stories so much fun to read, whatever age you are.”

Roald Dahl once said that he didn’t want his readers to get so bored they decided to close the book and watch television instead. “We don’t want our dictionary readers to do that either,” Rennie says. “We want them to feel the joy of browsing in a dictionary, and discovering something they didn’t know before. It is a dictionary to be read, not just consulted.”

So let’s see. What’s the difference between a snozzcumber and a snozzwanger? Well, a snozzcumber is a slimy, black-and-white-striped cucumber – yucky, but harmless. A snozzwanger, on the other hand, is a deadly predator. A quogwinkle is an alien which can communicate with human beings from the cosmos.

To be biffsquiggled, meanwhile, is to be confused or puzzled.

As Rennie explains, it’s made up of “biff” – a punch – and “squiggled” – as in squiggles. So “you feel as if your brain is reeling from a punch and is as muddled as a squiggly piece of doodling”. There you go. Be biffsquiggled no more.

The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary is published by OUP at £14.99

Six of our favourite gobblefunk words and what they mean

Sogmire: like a quagmire, only much, much soggier

Zozimus: the stuff that dreams are made from (the BFG likes to whisk it up with an eggbeater)

Swogswallowed: caught, possibly by a giant

Trogglehumper: a really, really bad nightmare

Lickswishy: utterly yummy

Poppyrot: utter nonsense

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