Linguistic play on Roald Dahl Day

As well as marking the beginning of the new school year, September celebrates the career and achievements of one of the world’s most beloved children’s authors: Roald Dahl.

Born on 13th September 1916, Dahl’s dark yet playful creations have been entertaining families and classrooms for over seven decades, introducing us to creatures like the Oompa Loompa, and transporting us to worlds as magical as the BFG’s Dream Country. For this reason, Dahl’s novels have always been popular amongst teachers and students. As That Boy Can Teach says, through Dahl’s many themes, “we have the opportunity to explore so much more: sadness, tolerance, difference, poverty, neglect, bullying, abuse, evil, animal cruelty, safety, unrequited love.”

Each year, on the anniversary of the author’s birth, Roald Dahl HQ organises festivities in numerous schools around the world, encouraging students to partake in their Dahl-themed parties and ‘Dahlicious Dress Up Days.’ Today, a year after the author’s centenary, celebrations are centred on the re-release of Billy and the Mintins – Dahl’s last published work – complete with brand new illustrations by lifelong collaborator Quentin Blake. In preparation for the event, a colourful party pack has been compiled, allowing students to design their own Marvellous Medicine or generate their own Dahlesque character-names (mine, for the record, is The Delumptious Bootboggler).

For teachers, perhaps the pack’s most useful activity is the so-called ‘Gobblefunk Quiz” – a quiz that tests readers on their knowledge of some of Dahl’s silliest made-up vocabulary. Accompanied by a suggested lesson plan, the ‘Gobblefunk Quiz’ provides incomplete definitions for words such as ‘frobscottle’, ‘biffsquiggled’ and ‘quadropus’, before challenging students to invent their own Gobblefunk terms by stitching together their favourite words.

This creative exercise inspired me to think about how else Dahl’s Gobblefunk could be used as a fun way to teach vocabulary. Vocabulary games can be an exciting and effective way of getting students to encounter and memorise new language, and Gobblefunk is a great vehicle for this kind of linguistic play. Despite their nonsensical nature, many of Dahl’s ‘extra-usual’ words have since found common usage in the English language, with phrases like ‘human bean’ and ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ earning entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. For me, this memorability of Dahl’s language comes from his playful experimentation with existing rules of word construction. The term ‘mispise’, for instance, distorts the word ‘despise’ – which, in Latin, translates literally as ‘look down at’ – by replacing the prefix of ‘de-‘ (meaning ‘down’) with the prefix of ‘mis-‘ (meaning ‘wrongly’ or ‘incorrectly’). When the BFG says he “mispises” something, therefore, it means he dislikes it and ‘looks at it wrongly’. The suffix ‘-some’ in the word “filthsome”, meanwhile, tells us that he refers to something that is characterised by filth.

It seems to me that teaching students to recognise Dahl’s bending of word construction could be a fun literacy strategy in enabling learners to easily identify linguistic rules, while providing them with the skills to intuit the definitions of new language.

What do you think? Can you think of other fun vocabulary activities we could make from Dahl’s Gobblefunk?

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