Roald Dahl's wordplay

Posted by
The Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
11:00am, 19th May
Museum, The BFG
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke manuscript

We take a look at some of the inventive words Roald Dahl used in The Vicar of Nibbleswicke and The BFG

Roald Dahl's use of language has always been one of his most celebrated qualities. From creating new words, to twisting and mingling existing ones, the creative relationship Roald Dahl had with language was endlessly inventive and entertaining.        

When you think of Roald Dahl and language you immediately think of The BFG and the wonderful 'gobblefunk' he created (in the archive we have pages of words he created for the book, phizzwizzard!). When describing the process of writing The BFG he recalled; "it was enormous fun trying to invent new words. You should try it yourselves some time and see what you come up with".     

However, it is not just The BFG where his creative use of language is at the fore, many of Roald Dahl's books use wordplay in some form with plots and characters revolving around his unique handling of language.  

Esio Trot is one such book. In it, the plot relies to a large degree on a supposed spell created using word reversal. Where would the central characters Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver be without the magical words,

Esio Trot Esio Trot, teg reggib reggib! emoc no, esio trot, worg pu. ffup pu, toohs pu!?


In the archive here in Great Missenden, we have a letter Roald Dahl wrote to his publisher explaining that on reading Esio Trot to some children he found that they "particularly adored the business of reversing the spelling of the words into tortoise language...and they wanted more of them, many more...the changes will make it a lot more fun for children". Because having fun with language, showing the variation and possibilities of words and encouraging others to do the same was an important part of Roald Dahl's writing.   

We can see a mirroring of this technique in his later book The Vicar of Nibbleswick. Roald Dahl wrote the book in the last month of his life. Published after his death it is dedicated to The Dyslexia Institute in London, now Dyslexia Action. In the archive we have most of Roald Dahl's early manuscripts, all handwritten on his favoured yellow writing paper. For this book he, along with Quentin Blake, donated the rights including the manuscript of the book to the charity. Quentin Blake, in a note in the book, wrote that it was 'a landmark of both his [Roald Dahl's] concern for people and his passionate belief in the importance of reading'. So we don't have any notes on the original idea but we do have a transcript with Roald Dahl's scribble "Note: copyright for this is not mine" at the top of the front page. 

The book tells the story of Robert Lee, a vicar who happens to suffer from 'front to back dyslexia', a childhood condition he overcame, only to be stricken by it again in adulthood due to anxiety and stress. The problem means that the vicar unwittingly pronounces words backwards.He exclaims to the knitters in his congregation "How clever you all are! Each of you stink!" and suggests that they should not park near the church “If you all krap at the same time all along the side of the road you could be hit by a passing car at any time.” As you can imagine, it is a challenging situation. 

Tellingly, the congregation find it entertaining: "a welcome change from the old routine of well-worn phrases", something Roald Dahl was always keen to avoid.  As he points out in The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, "very few words do make sense backwards" but that doesn't mean it's not amusing. Like The BFG, Robert Lee's unusual yet familiar use of language "added a nice crazy touch". 

The treatment and cure for Robert Lee/Eel's predicament is to simply walk backwards whilst talking, "then the back-to-front words will come out frontwards or the right way round. It's common sense".