From muggle to whizzpopper: invented words in children’s literature

When Roald Dahl invented words such as lickswishy, which describes the way English boys taste to giants in The BFG (1982), and whizzpoppers, the enjoyable propelling farts produced by the same giants after they drink frobskottle, he was following in a tradition among children’s writers of coining neologisms that dates back at least as far as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice found there (1871).

In Carroll’s story Humpty Dumpty explains one kind of neologism to Alice: what he called the portmanteau word (a neologism in itself), in which two meanings are packed into one word. In the poem Jabberwocky, for instance, the word slithey combines lithe and slimy while mimsy brings together flimsy and miserable. This explanation is necessary since Carroll’s sophisticated coinages tend to be the result of playing with the rules of grammar and pronunciation, meaning that to appreciate their construction, understand what they mean, and enjoy the poem, readers need to be familiar with these rules. A certain amount of sense can be inferred from the way the words sound but, particularly in Jabberwocky, neologisms occur so frequently that neither sound nor context alone provides sufficient clues to decode the poem.

Sense in nonsense

Dahl’s invented words, by contrast, need little in the way of explanation. Sometimes this is because they occur in sentences where the meaning is obvious as in ‘He rolled and he wiggled, he fought and he figgled, he squirmed and he squiggled” (BFG). Here figgled makes up the alliterative rhythm of the sentence and is understood to be equivalent to wiggled and squiggled. At other times the meaning is provided as part of the action so, for example, Sophie quickly sees what a whizzpopper is once the BFG drinks some frobskottle. In this case the coinage adds to children’s delight in the book because it clearly refers to the kind of behaviour that they are usually told it is impolite to discuss and which, before Dahl, was not regarded as a suitable subject for children’s literature. The new word offers a way to break a taboo without getting into trouble.

Another device for inventing new words used by both Carroll and Dahl is inversion. Once she goes through the looking-glass Alice discovers that everything is backwards. This means that she is unable to read Jabberwocky until she holds it up to a mirror. This device features in two of Dahl’s last works: Esio Trot (1990) spells tortoise backwards, and a tortoise is central to the plot of that book, while the posthumously published The Vicar of Nibbleswicke (1991) features a vicar with ‘back-to-front-dyslexia’ which means he says many words backwards. Perhaps most embarrassingly for a vicar is his tendency to say ‘dog’ instead of ‘God’…

Long live neologisms

Children’s writers continue the tradition of creating neologisms. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for instance, introduce readers to a wide range of invented words. While Rowling’s sense of Muggle (in the Oxford English Dictionary since 2003) is an entirely invented word that simply sounds like what it means – a mildly pejorative term for non-magical people – many of Rowling’s coinages are portmanteau words that provide information about characters and things. Animagus, for instance, combines the words animal and magus to create a word for witches and wizards who can transform into animals. Because many of Rowling’s neologisms blend parts of words from languages such as Latin and French, many readers have spent time looking up word roots in their search for hidden meanings. The name of Harry’s principal adversary, Lord Voldemort, for instance, has been translated from French as ‘theft of death’, which says a great deal about both his desire for immortality and his willingness to kill others.

Where for babies and very young children the pleasure of inventing new words may come from experimenting with sound, rhythm, sense, and nonsense, as Carroll’s, Dahl’s, and Rowling’s work shows, older children and adults tend to enjoy the intellectual dimension of neologisms, appreciating the ways in which authors use them to add information, colour, and sometimes a playfully subversive element to texts. Whizzpop!

Kimberley Reynolds November 24 2014

Kimberley Reynolds is Professor of Children's Literature at Newcastle University. She is the author of Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction.

Categories: English in use
Tags: english literatureLewis CarrollneologismpopularRoald Dahl
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