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Dear Lexdyslic Reader: why I love Roald Dahl

Read Monday, 20 Jun 2016

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl. Children’s author Jackie French explains why Dahl has a special place in her heart – as a mother, grandmother, writer and fellow dyslexic.

Roald Dahl
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Roald Dahl

When Roald Dahl’s BFG (Big Friendly Giant) mixes his words up – when he calls helicopters, bellypoppers, for example – the reader laughs with him, not at him.

Many readers assume Roald Dahl’s neologisms (the new words he created) were hilarious literary devices. They weren’t. Dahl spoke of how The BFG was partly inspired by his first wife’s struggle to speak after having a stroke, but Dahl’s ingenious jungling of words probably had something to do with his own complicated history with language, too. Dahl was dyslexic, as are about one in 11 kids in school today. Dahl’s deliberate mispusing of words is ‘in-your-face dyslexia’. How many times, I wonder, was Dahl taunted before he started to use his squaggles as weapons?

I, too, am lexdyslic. My words ‘go left’, instead of ‘right’. Even now, after radio interviews, pedantic bogsquogglers call in to correct my sloshfunking. At age seven, I convinced all 43 of the human beans in our class, who then convinced our teacher, that monsters were really called orges. Our family still refers to those great big creatures with trunks as effelents. And after reading The Witches, the country where the Queen lives will always be Inkland to me.

Even now, after radio interviews, pedantic bogsquogglers call in to correct my sloshfunking.

Roald Dahl took ridicule and political correctness, twisted them, added genius and threw them back at those who scoffed. His bullets were crafted words of wit. And so I love him. I’m not sure I like him – there is more than a tinge of cruelty in My Uncle Oswald and in The Witches – but you do not have to like those you love. As a mother, I have loved Dahl, reading The BFG approximately 3,694 times to my son. As a grandmother, I have loved him too; my grandson is getting Revolting Rhymes for his next birthday and I hope it corrupts him in a whiffswiddle, just as it did me. Because in the rubble of my first marriage, I read Dahl’s anti-fairytale re-telling of Cinderella. In Dahl’s version, Cinderella realises exactly who, and what, her Prince Charming really is, and declares to her fairy godmother:

‘No more princes, no more money,
I have had my taste of honey.
I’m wishing for a decent man.’
They’re hard to find. Do you think you can?’

Dahl's BFG

Like the BFG, Dahl managed to hear the hidden whispers of the world. With Dahl as my guide, I stopped gobblefunking and married a man who, if not ‘a simple jam-maker by trade’, still made our house ‘filled with smiles and laughter’. (Not to mention a truly dory-hunking ending as we have whizzpopped together for the last 30 years.)

Perhaps I love Dahl most for his ability to scourge the sentimental.

Dahl also taught me never to think of language or grammar as the boss. Yes, you need to be intimate with the English language to shove it around, to play with it and create new bits – to create a phizz-whizzing, flushbunking read. But language is like a Big Friendly Giant – once you respect each other, you can have extraordinary adventures together.

Language is like a Big Friendly Giant – once you respect each other, you can have extraordinary adventures together.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to make this kind of thing work. A mispused neologism is pigsquibble. Many authors play with new words. Few successfully achieve new splanguage – poor blithering bogvumps and boshvollopers – especially those who try to find slushbungling synonyms for four-letter words so their books are not banned by schools or libraries.

A successful neologism must be immediately intelligible to the reader – even a three-year-old – or it is rommytot. Yell ‘repulsive snozzcumbers!’ next time you are given the trogglehumping slime that fast-food chains regard as salad, and nobody will need bicirculers or telescoops to know what you mean, just as the taste of snozzberries (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is as instantly evoked as the enticing stink waves emitted by children in The Witches or the scent of a delumptious guntle’s egg. (NB: Do not try Uncle Oswald’s beetle extract.)

Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes

I love Sergeant Samways in Danny the Champion of the World, who removes the ‘h’ from all the words that should ‘ave started with that letter, and puts them helsewhere:

‘This is a very hinteresting Haccusation. I ain’t never ‘eard of anybody henticing a pheasant.’

That, perhaps, is Dahl’s Law of Written Haccents and Neologisms. You are only hallowed to do hit if hit works.

To all those who face the squibbling of pedants: don’t let them squiff-squiggle your words! Fluckgrungle and stompgroggle them. May they be crodsquinkled and bopmuggered. And the next time anyone swizzfiggles you, dear lexdyslic reader, remember Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf:

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.

She whips a pistol from her knickers . . .’

And raise a glass of rice-bold frobscottle to Roald Dahl.

Love weird words, like ‘boondoggle’, ‘juggins’, ‘oolite’ and ‘scapegrace’?  With the Wheeler Centre’s Adopt a Word programme, you can nurture an obscure, endangered word and support us to keep doing what we do. 

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