The Oxford Roald Dahl, an “extra-usual” dictionary: Talking with Dr. Susan Rennie

Dr. Susan Rennie

Early last month, in celebration of what would have been Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, Oxford University Press published the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary. Aimed at young logophiles, the dictionary includes both everyday words and those invented by the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

We had the chance to speak to the compiler of the book, lexicographer Dr. Susan Rennie, and to hear about the process behind putting together such an “extra-usual” dictionary, the excitement of defining some of Dahl’s invented words for the first time, and what Dahl words are the most fun to say.

What’s your favorite Roald Dahl word?

A particular favourite of mine is zozimus. That is what the BFG calls the stuff that dreams are made of, which he whisks with his magical egg-beater. It has a wonderfully mystical sound to it, and it uses Z which is one of Roald Dahl’s favourite letters, as in words like phizz-whizzing, zippfizzing and zoonk.

How did you go about compiling these words?

We began by creating a special database which allowed us to search and analyse all of Roald Dahl’s writings for children. That helped us to identify 393 words that Roald Dahl invented, and to find quotations to show how he used them in his books. It also helped us to find ordinary words, like alarm-clock and glove, which have special significance in his stories.

Throughout the project I also reread Roald Dahl’s books many times to help keep his spirit to the forefront, as we wanted the dictionary to be both authoritative and a little bit mischievous.

Was the process different from a “traditional” dictionary?

This has been a very extra-usual dictionary to work on, because it has involved so much creative thinking and experimentation. It is a rare treat to be able to define a word for the very first time, and I’ve been able to do that for all of Roald Dahl’s invented words, from aerioplane to zozimus. It is also the first dictionary where I have been able to write a definition backwards (in the entry for Esio Trot) and in the form of a limerick (for limerick of course).

What Dahl word do you think everyone should have in their vocabulary?

Biffsquiggled! I use it all the time now as it is so much more expressive than saying “confused” or “puzzled.” Another word that I find myself using is sizzlepan, which is far more fun to say than “frying-pan.” The words redunculous and exunckly are particularly useful for grown-ups as we can get them into all sorts of everyday conversations.

Are there dialect or jargon words that Dahl picked up that you wouldn’t expect in children’s books?

Roald Dahl uses some old-fashioned British slang like blithering, blighter and ruddy. You wouldn’t normally find those words in a children’s dictionary, but they are very much part of Roald Dahl’s world and the dictionary is there to help readers navigate through that.

He also uses some words that children are less familiar with these days, such as breeches (in Matilda) and steeplejack (in James and the Giant Peach), so we explain those too. The word crockadowndilly, which is the BFG’s name for a kind of crocodile, is based on a dialect word daffadowndilly meaning “daffodil.”

The dictionary doesn’t include pronunciations. Are there words where you would have liked to include them? What Dahl word do you think is the most fun to say?

The one word where we do indicate pronunciation is Knid, as Willy Wonka is very clear that the K should be pronounced, as in K’NID. He doesn’t tell us how to pronounce Gnooly (another nasty creature in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), or knickle (which is what Gnoolies do to you if they catch you), but I like to think they would both have their first letters pronounced too.

All of Roald Dahl’s invented words are fun to say out loud, which is why children love them, but I think those where he uses an internal rhyme, like Oompa-Loompa and rumpledumpus, or those which are very onomatopoeic, like lickswishy and uckyslush, are especially satisfying.

Are there are any other authors you think should have their own dictionary?

I would love to write a Lewis Carroll dictionary, as he was also very creative with language. Carroll came up with the name portmanteau for a word that combines two other words, and he invented the words chortle and galumph which are now part of everyday language.

Dr. Susan Rennie has worked on many dictionaries for both children and adults, including the Oxford Primary Dictionary, Oxford Primary Thesaurus, 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. She is currently a Lecturer in English Language at the University of Glasgow, where she teaches lexicography and the history of Scots and English.

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The Wordnik 2015 Word Nerd Gift Guide

Is there a logophile on your holiday gift list? Give the best wordy presents ever with our 2015 Word Nerd Gift Guide.


Everyone loves a Chomsky Party, and even colorless green tea tastes better out of a Chomsky Party mug.

chomskymugIf your loved linguist didn’t choose the wug life, but the wug life chose them, let them show it with wug shirts. You can also help them have less stress in their life with a schwa t-shirt! Or you might want to liven up their vocabulary (terminology, lexicon, or phraseology) with a shirt featuring everyone’s favorite wordy dinosaur, the Thesaurus. thesaurus_1272x920shirt_guys_02


For lovers of American English, you can’t go wrong with a subscription to the online version of the Dictionary of American Regional Englishand it’s 50% off through January 3rd!

Another gift that keeps giving all year long is a subscription to long-form popular linguistics writing mag SchwaFire: recent articles have covered ASL translation, Yiddish, and “accent tag” videos.


This year was a great one for language books. Some highlights included:

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris

A copy editor who has put in more than three decades at The New Yorker, Norris explains some of the most common problems with spelling, punctuation, and usage, drawing on examples not just from classic literature such as Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson, but from the likes of The Honeymooners and The Simpsons as well.

From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations, by Allan Metcalf

The latest from one of our favorite Chronicle of Higher Education writers and the author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. From bobbysoxing Silents to whatever Gen X’ers, From Skedaddle explores the words that encapsulate and characterize whole generations.

The Art of Language Invention, by David J. Peterson

The creator of Dothraki? A history of constructed languages? ‘Nuff said.

Bullshit: A Lexicon, by Mark Peters

Also known as @wordlust, Peters has long been one of our favorite word nerds. His latest book delves into all the different ways of saying balderdash, hooey, and bunk.


And of course, our favorite gift: giving a favorite word at Wordnik!

Are you a #wordnerd or a #languagegeek?

A very generous donor has given us an omakase word adoption — we can choose any word! So we thought we’d use this to see whether Wordniks are more likely to consider themselves ‘word nerds’ or ‘language geeks’. (We can never decide — some days we’re one, and and some days the other.)

From now until 9:30 AM PDT on June 1, show whether you’re a #wordnerd or a #languagegeek by tweeting about our adopt-a-word fundraiser with either hashtag. We’ll pick one lucky retweeter to be the official adopter-of-record for their term of choice!

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(Not on Twitter? Just leave a comment here or on our Facebook page!)

May the best quirky linguistic subculture win!

Wordnik is becoming a not-for-profit!

Today we’re happy to announce that, the world’s biggest online dictionary, has started the process of becoming a not-for-profit corporation, with the mission of collecting and sharing data for every word in the English language.

Since 2008, Wordnik has tried to be the place where every word — no matter how rare, weird, new, or ephemeral — could have a home. More than a hundred thousand Wordniks have made their choice — not just for looking up (several million) words every day, but for creating a community for leaving helpful comments, adding useful tags, and making over forty thousand educational, entertaining, and just plain amazing word lists.

As part of Reverb Technologies, the word graph that we’ve created has shown tremendous commercial value in delivering remarkable insights about content and users.

As part of, we’ll continue to develop and support the Wordnik API, too — expect some exciting announcements on that front in the next few months. (You can always find information on Reverb’s open-source API description framework at

Reverb Technologies is continuing (and how!) with its goal of making meaningful connections for readers and publishers. Check out Reverb at!

We hope you will support us in our mission to share all the words. Please email us at with any suggestions, questions, or advice!

App-propos: The Reverb App

Almost a year ago, we announced that our company name was changing from “Wordnik Inc” to “Reverb Technologies” … and we promised more news.

Today, we’re very happy to announce the Reverb App — a brand-new discovery reader designed to help you read more about what you like, and find new and interesting content, too.

Given our roots as word-lovers, it’s not surprising that the app opens with a gorgeous Word Wall interface:

We believe that words are a fantastic navigation tool. With our Reverb Word Wall view, we give a great overview of the news landscape, and make it easier to dive deeper with a single tap.

We also use our wordy expertise to help connect readers with content. Our new Reverb app sorts and prioritizes articles into three separate content ‘streams’ that help you effortlessly discover more of what you want to read and less of what you don’t: a ‘me’ stream for personalized interests and stories; a ‘friends’ stream that collects articles shared through social network connections, and a ‘news’ stream that keeps you on top of breaking news from respected news sources from around the world.

The more the app is used, the more personalized it gets, replacing information overload with information satisfaction.

We think our new app creates a beautiful and engaging environment for reading and discovering content. Our goal is that with Reverb, you’ll always find something you didn’t know you wanted to know. It’s available now for iPad (iOS 7) only — download it here for free.

March Wordnik of the Month: Madison Andrews

In our monthly Wordnik newsletter (which you, too, can get in your in-box by subscribing to our Word of the Day via email) last month we asked for volunteers for a new feature, our Wordnik of the Month. We got a great response, and are happy to feature Madison Andrews as our very first WotM (pronounced “whottem”)!

Madison Andrews is a journalist, editor, and graphic designer based in Austin, Texas. When she isn’t posting SAT Critical Reading and Writing advice on her blog, Mad Skills Vocabulary, she is a columnist and contributor for A New Domain and Tech Page One. Follow Madison
@madskillsvocab, or send her an email.

Of course, we had some questions for Madison …

1. How do you use Wordnik?

I use Wordnik to enrich the educational content on Mad Skills
. I’m particularly excited about our latest feature, Mad Skills Word Search, which I designed with Paul Bonner of NimbleQuick studios.

Mad Skills Word Search is a web app that uses the Wordnik API to provide definitions and examples of SAT words. So, say you’re a student, and you run across the word perfidious in a blog post or word list on the Mad Skills Vocabulary site. You could click on that link to find several different definitions and context sentences for the word.

Word Search is still in the early stages of development, but we’re excited to see where this project will lead. Currently, the only way to invoke the application is to click on a linked word in an article or word list on Mad Skills Vocabulary, but we’ll be adding a search page to the Mad Skills Word Search site. We also hope to eventually allow our users to take advantage of some of Wordnik’s more exotic offerings – etymologies and related words and audio pronunciations.

We’re also interested in building a community of Mad Skills users, and will be doing some other cool stuff in that direction, as well.

2. What’s your favorite thing about Wordnik?

My favorite thing about Wordnik is that it makes language fun, engaging, and interactive. Most students can’t learn new words and truly expand their vocabularies just by memorizing lists of SAT or AP exam words. They need to interact with a word, see several definitions, read lots of examples, hear the word, learn how it relates to other words that they know. Really get to the point where they can almost taste it. That’s what Wordnik provides, and that’s what I hope to provide in a more targeted way for the students who visit Mad Skills Vocabulary. For Mad Skills, the Wordnik API makes that possible.

3. What’s your all-time favorite Wordnik list?

Gravity’s Rainbow by dfw2008.

4. What one thing do you wish Wordnik would do (that it doesn’t now)?

Well, one thing we’re thinking about for Mad Skills is adding an interactive flash card application, and maybe even practice exams for high school and college students, and I agree with many of the users on your community forums that some kind of flash card capability would be a great addition to Wordnik, as well. But really, at this point we’re more focused on the API and figuring out how to take advantage of everything it provides, and we’re very happy with what we’ve seen so far.

5. What are some of your other favorite sites online?

… and whatever site I end up choosing as a replacement for Google Reader,
currently Feedly.

Would you like to be a Wordnik of the Month? Email us at with your answers to these questions, and enjoy your fifteen minutes of wordy fame …