Squinky pigsquiffle! How Roald Dahl teaches children creative swearing

A new book by lexicographer Susan Rennie collects the author’s nonsensical insults and expletives, celebrating ‘words that push the boundaries a little bit’

If a small child were to walk up to the lexicographer 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 and Repulsant Words. Ostensibly a children’s dictionary of Dahl’s insults and expletives, the book also offers a chance to explore and analyse Dahl’s creative use of language, encouraging Dahl lovers of any age to have fun playing with his naughty-sounding words.

“Children and grownups 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. “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 grownups, sometimes forget how much fun language can be, especially when you make words up.”

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, the techniques Dahl used to invent words are 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.

Roald Dahl’s Rotsome and Repulsant Words
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 BFG.

As a bilingual Norwegian and English speaker, Dahl would have been able to look at the construction of English more objectively than monolingual writers, says Michael Rosen, 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.”

Roald Dahl’s Rotsome and Repulsant Words

He also credits Dahl’s education at a public school, Repton, 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.”

• This article was amended on 28 February 2019. An earlier version misnamed Roald Dahl’s school as “Renton”.

Contributor

Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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