Squinky pigsquiffle! How Roald Dahl teaches children creative swearing

A new book collects the author’s nonsensical – but logical, intuitive – insults

The BFG: ‘Roald Dahl, in his language as much as in his characters and his plots, always has a twinkle in his eye.’ Illustration: Quentin Blake/Puffin

The BFG: ‘Roald Dahl, in his language as much as in his characters and his plots, always has a twinkle in his eye.’ Illustration: Quentin Blake/Puffin

 

If a small child were to walk up to Susan Rennie in the street and call her a slopgroggled grobsquiffler, she would know exactly how to reply. “You squinky squiddler!” she would shout. “You piffling little swishfiggler! You troggy little twit! Don’t you dare talk pigsquiffle to me, you prunty old pogswizzler!”

Either that or she would thank the child profusely for taking the time to read her latest book, Roald Dahl’s Rotsome & Repulsant Words. Ostensibly a children’s dictionary of Dahl’s insults and expletives, the book also offers a chance to explore and analyse the author’s creative use of language, encouraging Dahl lovers of any age to have fun playing with his naughty-sounding words.

“Children and grown-ups alike are fascinated by words that push the boundaries a little bit – and Dahl, in his language as much as in his characters and his plots, always has a twinkle in his eye,” says Rennie, who is a lexicographer. “Children are not going to get into trouble by using these words. But, at the same time, they’re fun to say and they’re very powerful. I think we, as grown-ups, sometimes forget how much fun language can be, especially when you make words up.”

We know how naturally creative children are with words, how much they love chopping words up and combining them to make new words. Dahl does that

Dahl created more than 300 words, she says, and sets a liberating example to anyone whose creativity with words was – or is – stifled at school. “We know from looking at children’s writing how naturally creative children are with words, how much they love chopping words up and combining them to make new words. Dahl does that, and this book encourages children to carry on doing that, to keep going with what they enjoy doing naturally with language and to be creative.”

Like Lewis Carroll before him, Dahl invented invent words using techniques built firmly on the existing traditions of the English language. For example, to make his rude “gobblefunk” easily understood by children, Dahl relies on reduplication (“ucky-mucky”), malapropisms (“tummyrot” for “tommyrot”), onomatopoeia (“whizzpopper” meaning, famously, a sound “even the Queen’s bottom makes”), portmanteau words (gruesome and rotten combine to create “rotsome”); and, most powerfully, alliterative phonaesthesia, where consonant clusters and specific sounds connote meaning to the made-up words.

The BFG: translations of ‘snozzcumber’ from around the world. Illustration: Oxford University Press
The BFG: translations of ‘snozzcumber’ from around the world. Illustration: Oxford University Press

“Squinky squiddler” (which the giants in The BFG call something small, squashy and insignificant), “troggy little twit” (how the giants refer to someone who is vile and horrible, evoking a troll in a bog) and “snozzcumber” (a “sickable”, “disgusterous” cucumber-like vegetable) are just a few examples of this in Dahl’s writing.

This is why children understand the meanings, Rennie says. “That’s why they are so much fun: they are not complete nonsense. On the surface he seems to be breaking the rules. But dig a little deeper and you realise he’s following standard patterns that people understand intuitively.”

Rennie notes that, just as Dahl learned to make sense of some of the nonsensical words and phrases spoken by his wife Patricia Neal, after she had a stroke, Sophie in The BFG is quickly able to translate for the Big Friendly Giant.

Roald Dahl with his first wife, Patricia Neal, and two of their children in 1964. Photograph: Hulton/Getty
Roald Dahl with his first wife, Patricia Neal, and two of their children in 1964. Photograph: Hulton/Getty

As a bilingual Norwegian and English speaker, Dahl would have been able to look at the construction of English more objectively than monolingual writers, according to Michael Rosen, the children’s writer and author of The Fantastic Mr Dahl. “If you are bilingual it gives you two heads. You have a head you can use to look at the other head. It enables you to see that you’ve got completely different ways of talking about something similar, and that one language might be able to do stuff or describe stuff the other language can’t.”

He also credits Dahl’s education at a public school, Renton, for enabling Dahl to realise he could invent his own subversive vernacular: “Children in boarding schools often set up little coteries, partly to defend themselves against the authoritarianism of those schools with their own private language. Often it’s elitist, but with Dahl the nice thing is that he wanted to share his language with children.”

Frequently, Dahl invents insults and expletives to give power to the powerless characters in his stories, he says. “When you write stuff, and a teacher corrects it and hands it back to you, you don’t necessarily know that language belongs to you, that you can own it. But if you play with words and language, or you know that you are entitled to, that is one way to own literacy – and that’s what Dahl wanted. He was desperate for children to read and have fun when they were reading.” – Guardian

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