The swishwifflingly scrumdiddlyumptious language of Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl in his Writing Hut c.1990
©Jan Baldwin, courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre
A teacher friend of mine claims that she can spot them by the way they hang around her desk before assembly waiting to be asked something. She’s a kind soul, far more Miss Honey than Miss Trunchbull, so after a bit of fiddling with her register she’ll look up and say, ‘And how are you this morning, Toby?’ The reply comes after a bit of smiling and steeling, ‘Oh, um, well, swishwifflingly scrumdiddlyumptious…’ Then a little glance up to check that the sky hasn’t fallen in and that it really is OK to use words that are not in a dictionary and which seem so full of adult-defying rudeness. One more child has discovered gobblefunk, the language created by Roald Dahl for his Big Friendly Giant (The BFG).
Today, 13 September, his birthday, is Roald Dahl Day, an invitation to whoppsy-wiffling flushbunking gloriumptious piggery-jokery.
The words Dahl invented are not in our dictionaries, although some of the fragments which make them up are, and searching for them is an endlessly fascinating game. Take Oompa-Loompa for example. Was Dahl thinking of oompah-pah, the rhythmical sound of deep-toned brass instruments? Lump? maybe Karl Marx’s lumpenproletariat. There are resonances with loom, and so with workers in the vast factories of the Industrial Revolution. And of course there is also Dahl’s delight in rhyme which extends beyond Revolting Rhymes into his prose.
One Dahl word which we do cover is gremlin. I always took a gremlin to be one of the cast of little people who have walked about for centuries with gnomes, goblins, elves, and pixies. In fact the word arose in the early days of the RAF to personify the source of any technical problem. Dahl learnt it in 80 Squadron during WWII and used it in his first book, The Gremlins, published in 1943. Eleanor Roosevelt read it the same year in the White House to her grandchildren. Dahl took gremlin outside the RAF and made the word so generally known that its associations with aircraft, and indeed with Dahl, are now forgotten.
As a child Dahl dreamed of inventing a new chocolate bar. As an adult he sat toying with the silver ball he had made from the foil of countless Kit-Kats in his famous hut in Great Missenden. (A frail structure which should, it was announced today, soon find refuge in the Roald Dahl Museum.) In this hut Dahl conjured up not just a chocolate bar but a whole factory with Willy Wonka, the Oompa-Loompas, Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teavee. Dahl had Charles Dickens’ ear (or Dahl’s Chickens as the BFG calls him), for a perfectly formed name.
This genius for taking syllables and word-fragments finds its fullest expression in gobblefunk. You can see in the photo above how many words Dahl tried out—writing as always on the yellow American legal pads he became addicted to when he worked in New York— before he could invent such words as chiddler (for child).
Frobscottle is defined in The BFG as a delicious fizzy liquid whose bubbles travel downwards. It might be best not to go too much into the physics of this – but the language will bear any level of analysis and still come out sounding fun.
Dahl’s cattlepiddler eschews the dictionary spelling, caterpillar, (which comes from the French chatepelose, ‘hairy cat’) and delights his readers with the image of a urinating cow.
It is wonderful when you’re Toby’s age to discover that there really is a proper printed book built around whizzpopping – gobblefunk for ‘breaking wind’. His delight might prompt him to explore with a dictionary the meaning not just of words but of syllables and then to invent new words of his own, as any of us can do. How lickswishy is that? I wish you all a very dory-hunky Roald Dahl Day.