Why Gobblefunk is not Gobbledegook by Susan Rennie, Chief Editor of the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary
As Roald Dahl fans around the globe gear up for the author’s centenary this month, many will be brushing up on their gobblefunk: that unmistakably Dahlesque language full of gloriumptiously jumpsquiffling and wondercrump words. But although the name gobblefunk sounds like gobbledegook, the language itself is far from nonsense. Roald Dahl built his new words from the building blocks of the old, using established patterns of word formation and sound symbolism, so chiddlers and grown-ups alike can make sense of it, even when seeing the words for the first time. What after all could biffsquiggled mean except confused and muddled?
Roald Dahl never used the term gobblefunk to describe his made-up language. The word appears in The BFG only as a verb, where the giant gently chides Sophie for gobblefunking (ie playing around) with words. But that is now the accepted name for the lexicon of words that he invented: all 393 of them, as counted for the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary. Roald Dahl himself had once counted 283 in a list that he compiled for an early draft of The BFG. He later added more, including some words that never made it into the finished books, such as flubboxed, strodelling and the intriguing ghost gloamer (a ghost that roams in the gloamin, perhaps?)
There are certain patterns visible in gobblefunk. One of them is reduplication, where a syllable is repeated with a slight change to make rhyming compounds like flavory-savory, ucky-mucky and Oompa Loompa. Reduplicative words often survive in dialects (the English Dialect Dictionary notes borus-snorus ‘happy-go-lucky’ from Dorset, for example). There are further nods to dialect in the fauna in Giant Country. A crockadowndilly ‘crocodile’, is indebted to the dialect daffadowndilly meaning ‘daffodil’. A clockcoach might seem like a simple malapropism for cockroach, yet clock is a dialect word for a beetle. In this vein it is fascinating that Roald Dahl decided to change the name for one of the good dreams from gloriana to phizzwizard. Perhaps gloriana would have been too Latinate a borrowing for the giants: as if, against all evidence to the contrary, they had somehow embraced the Renaissance.
When you start to break it down, gobblefunk starts to look quite plausible. Why not, after all, say sizzlepan, like the BFG? The more common frying-pan focuses on function rather than sound; but in Scots it is a skirling-pan or skirler, with the sound uppermost. The egg-beater which the BFG uses to whisk dreams was once called a frothstick. Suddenly gobblefunk seems full of plausible alternatives. The word binoculars means ‘two eyes’, but it could equally have been called bicirculers ‘two circles’, as it is in gobblefunk, with the emphasis on shape. (The word lens is named after its lentil-like shape.)
The BFG is very partial to diminutives. Well, he is a giant after all, so the world of human beans is puddlenuts to him. He adds diminutive endings to form affectionate names for Sophie, such as winkle and scrumplet, and to shrink bagpipes into the snipsier version, bagglepipes. Gobblefunk adjectives favour the Old English-derived suffix –some, so we get darksome and foulsome, murdersome and frightsome, rather than their more familiar forms, yet darksome and murdersome were used in Early Modern English, and frichtsome is still current in Scots. Viewed in this light, the giants’ language can seem like an ancient variety with forms or variants that have died out elsewhere: a dialect that has survived in Giant Country because of its seclusion. (Presumably anyone speaking a different dialect was simply eaten before they had a chance to effect linguistic change.)
The linguistic ‘mistakes’ which the BFG makes also fall into time-honoured patterns. Take norphan, the BFG’s word for ‘an orphan’. It is an example of misdivision; you find it also in words like newt, which was ‘an ewt’ in Middle English and, contrariwise, adder which was once ‘a nadder’. Although Roald Dahl was not the first human bean to use scrumdiddlyumptious, he undoubtedly made the word popular. As with jiggyraffe, it is formed by adding a syllable in the middle of a word: a process that linguists call infixation, and seen outside Giant Country in euphemisms like abso-blooming-lutely.
Many of the funniest Dahlisms are portmanteau words: a term coined by Lewis Carroll, whose own portmanteau inventions chortle and galumph have become part of everyday language. Sometimes Roald Dahl blends two words together to pack a greater semantic punch, as if adding a superlative (even one of his own, like
jumpsquiffling) just wouldn’t be enough. So something delumptious is not just delicious; it is both delicious and scrumptious. The giants don’t swallow and then gulp; they do it all at once in a single swollop, which is somehow all the more revolting.
As well as being fun to say and guaranteed to cause griggling, the sounds of gobblefunk often suggest its meaning. Why do we understand intuitively that a gruncious creature, like the dreaded Gruncher, itself, will be fierce not cuddly? The answer is sound symbolism, or what linguists call phonaesthesia. Words that start with cr– and gr– are often related to hard or harsh actions, like crunching and grinding or, in gobblefunk, grunching and cronking. Gobblefunk prefixes also have their own semantics. Words that start with grob– and trog– (grobsludging grobswitchers and trogglehumping trogfilth) always mean unpleasant things, whereas phizz– words (think phizz-whizzing phizzwizards) are more pleasant.
Roald Dahl didn’t leave detailed notes on how he created his words, but he did leave manuscript lists that show how he played with some favourite sounds and syllables – like fizz and whizz and iffle and iggle – in order to construct his endearingly funny (yet still understandable) words. Sometimes it is clear what he did – changing the ending of rotten to make rotsome or swopping initial letters to make a spoonerism in jipping and skumping – but at other times there is no one correct answer. Did he make dispunge by blending disgust and pungent, and was he also thinking of the sound of sponge? Trying to work that out is part of the fun – for lexicographers as well as for chiddlers.
Find more fantabulous definitions in the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary, a dictionary of real and invented words used by the World’s No.1 Storyteller.
Dr Susan Rennie is the Chief Editor of the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary. She has worked on many dictionaries for both children and adults, including the Oxford Primary Dictionary, Oxford Primary Thesaurus, the Oxford English Thesaurus for Schools and the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. She also writes books in Scots for children, and has translated the first Scots edition of Tintin.
Susan is currently a Lecturer in English Language at the University of Glasgow where she teaches lexicography and the history of English and Scots.