Dahlising the Dictionary: How the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary is turning children’s lexicography on its head

Dr Susan Rennie

It may seem like a straightforward task to compile a dictionary of words used by Roald Dahl. But which words should go in? Only words invented by Dahl, or words that are Dahlesque in spirit? And is it enough to list Roald Dahl’s words and then treat them in a standard way? Of course not! How very un-Dahl that would be. Here are some of the things that make the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary extra-usual. For just as Willy Wonka’s factory looks like a normal factory until you step inside, the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary looks like a normal dictionary – until you read more closely.

D is not for dinosaur

There are certain words that are staples in children’s dictionaries, because they feature so largely in children’s lives, and especially in their reading. Dinosaur, octopus, teddy-bear, robot, skateboard. But Roald Dahl’s fictional world is a unique place with its own flora and fauna. It is also very much of its time, so there are no mobile phones or selfies (however much Aunt Sponge would have loved them). Our headword list is therefore unlike that of any other children’s dictionary on the shelf. Instead of octopus and dinosaur, we have the four-tentacled quadropus and the legendary manticore (both of them needed to make Wonka-Vite). Instead of digital technology we have the hand-cranked egg-beater, which whisks something more interesting than eggs, and an alarm-clock which goes in the oven.

Neither up nor down

It is standard practice now for dictionaries of all sizes to cover common words such as be and have, or back and beyond, but it was not always thus. Until the eighteenth century, English dictionaries tended to focus on ‘hard words’. In some ways, the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary is a return to the hard-word tradition in lexicography. There are no entries for back or up or down – although fans of Esio Trot and The Twits will be glad to know that both backwards and upside down have a place. Instead we give more room to extra-usual vocabulary, the most extra-usual of all being the words that Roald Dahl invented – almost 400 of them, known collectively as gobblefunk. The famous phizz-whizzing and scrumdiddlyumptious are there, alongside the lesser-known lixivate and humplecrimp. So too are fantabulous and splendiferous: neither were invented by Roald Dahl, but they are so strongly associated with his writing that it would have been odd to leave them out. (As we point out to curious readers, splendiferous dates back to the 16th century and once had a synonym splendacious.) We also make room for words that can describe Roald Dahl’s characters, such as bibliophile (for Matilda), hirsute (for Mr Twit), and chocolatier (for obvious reasons).

The one case where we broke our own rules was for our first entry, aardvark – a word that never features in Roald Dahl’s stories (even though he could have seen one during his time in Africa). But, as the definition says, it had to go in, as otherwise the Dictionary would have started with aback, which is just too dull.

Sliding down banisters

One of the reasons that Roald Dahl’s writing seizes our imaginations is his unfailing ability to bring himself down to a child’s eye-level: the level at which the grown-up world can seem bizarre and arbitrary. The language of his narration is not that of a child, but the perspective is. How could we emulate that in a dictionary: a text so often seen as synonymous with adult authority?

There is a long and noble tradition of whimsical definitions in dictionaries. Johnson’s wry definitions of lexicographer and patron are well known, but he was followed by the Geddie brothers of Chambers Dictionary (ghost word ‘a word that has originated in the blunder of a scribe or printer – common in dictionaries’) and at the furthest extreme, Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, with its anti-definition of dictionary as ‘a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic’. To be subversive in a dictionary definition was not then unheard of – and for a Dahl Dictionary, it was de rigueur.

Hence our treatment of words such as banister (‘a long rail at the side of a staircase, useful for sliding down and also for grown-ups to hold on to’), exam (‘a test that grown-ups make you sit, to see if you have been paying attention to them’) and elbow (‘Elbows are in just the right place for leaning on desks and tables, although some grown-ups frown when you do this’). We weren’t trying to copy Roald Dahl, but rather to echo his mischievousness and his child-like (but never childish) perspective.

Sometimes we strayed even further. Among my favourite entries are those for Roald Dahl’s invented plants, such as the pigwinkle, puddlenut and tinkle-tinkle tree. Each definition gives a binomial species name which is entirely made up: Winkela porcana, Nux puddlensis and Tinculus polyflorus. Although these names are fictitious, I did run them past a botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to check that they would pass muster, so although not real, they are perfectly plausible.

Parachuting petticoats

One of the cardinal rules of lexicography is that dictionary examples should not be obtrusive; they should be the supporting cast in an entry, not play the starring role. But how could Roald Dahl’s glorious description of Mrs Twit with her petticoat ‘billowed out like a parachute, showing her long knickers’, which illustrates billow, or that of Veruca Salt’s mother, kneeling down with ‘her enormous behind sticking up in the air like a giant mushroom’, in the entry for mushroom, do anything other than stand out. And so they do. Gloriumptiously.

I have been writing dictionaries for two decades (equal to a single dose of Wonka-Vite), but this is the only dictionary where I have been able to write definitions in tortoise language (ie back-to-front) and in the form of a limerick (to emulate Matilda). By writing in this vein, we hope to waylay our readers: to encourage them to linger and even to wander into neighbouring entries. In an age when dictionary apps are able to answer any query in a mintick, the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary provides a different kind of dictionary experience.

As for turning the dictionary upside down? You have to do that to read the entry for upside down – or else stand on your head to read it.

oxford roald dahl dictionary sample page


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.