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.

Dictionary Day – Contest


Dictionary by crdotx, on Flickr

Dictionary Day is just a couple of weeks away! To help celebrate this day honoring the “Father of the American Dictionary,” Noah Webster, we’re holding a contest: now that you’re using Wordnik as your go-to word source, show us how you’re putting your print dictionary to use. Perhaps you’re using it as a door stop, or to flatten some flowers, or as a booster seat for a toddler. Whatever non-lexicographical use you’re putting your dictionary to, we want to see it.

Spanish dictionary pages up into the air

Spanish dictionary pages up into the air by Horia Varlan, on Flickr

By midnight Pacific Time on October 15, send your photos to us via Twitter or email, or post them on our Facebook wall. You can enter as many times as you want. The winners will receive a Wordnik T-shirt and some other swag, and appear on our blog.

Definition of love

Definition of love by Billy Rowlinson, on Flickr

Interested in learning more about Noah Webster? Check out this new biography, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, by Joshua Kendall (here’s the review from the The New York Times). If you’re on the east coast, you may want to visit the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut, the lexicographer’s birthplace. If you like corn mazes and lexicographers, you’re in luck, while for Halloween you may want to consider going as the Dictionary Fairy. Finally, for some inspiration for your dictionary photos, browse through this Flickr group, Lexicography and Dictionaries.

We look forward to seeing your dictionary photos!

This Week’s Language Blog Roundup

Greetings, fellow wordniks! It’s time again for our weekly language blog roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite language blogs and the latest in word news.

Earlier this week, The New York Times rounded up their 50 most looked-up words from January 1 through July 14 of this year.  Topping the list is panegyric, “a eulogy, written or spoken, in praise of some person or achievement; a formal or elaborate encomium.” Words that also appeared on the NY Times’ 2009 and 2010 lists are inchoate, opprobrium, and hubris.

Also in the Times this week was Ben Zimmer with a piece about forensic linguistics, used to help prove the authorship of texts, while Fast Company reported on a study on the detection of gender patterns in Twitter.

The Boston Globe discussed the banning of Creole in Haitian schools.  Meanwhile, over in Manchester, England, a department store has “banned staff from using words they believe sound ‘too Mancunian‘” when speaking with customers, such as hiya, see ya, and cheers, and demanding they use only hello, goodbye, and thank youMark Nichol at Daily Writing Tips considered some other taboo words, while Slate defended a speech tic that, um, some think should be banished as well.

Meanwhile, the debate over “irritating” Americanisms continued with part two of a post from Lynneguist, some words from Grant Barrett of A Way With Words, and some thoughts from Stan Carey.

The prolific Mr. Carey also had posts on the expression open kimono, and the ongoing fuss over the word ongoing. Lynneguist, aka Lynne Murphy, posted at Macmillan Dictionary blog on how Americans might want to handle small talk in the UK.

Robert Lane Greene at Johnson taught us how to do a bad southern accent (“Sookie!”), how to use mixed metaphors badly, and how to use them well. From Grammar Monkeys we learned how to correct others’ grammar with a smile, while the Yale Grammatical Diversity project is seeking to document the “syntactic diversity found in varieties of English spoken in North America.”

Our own Erin McKean wrote about why dictionaries make good novels; the A.V. Club listed 11 movies that give language a twist (“Well, smurf me with a chainsaw” is going on my tombstone), and fiction writer Jennifer Egan turns a list into a story, or a story into a list (what’s the diff, we like them both).

Arnold Zwicky explores boldly going, discusses a few unsatisfactory portmanteaus, and how even euphemistic exclamations can be offensive to some.  The Virtual Linguist took a look at the British saying, as you do; a lot of words for toilet; and slang initiatives in Wales and ScotlandThe Dialect Blog wondered why so many fantasy movies and shows are done with British accents, and mused on animal accents and vowel shifts.  K International examined the translation of movies, as well as languages in New Guinea that have fallen silent.

Fritinancy reviewed the names of fake chicken (or chikn?) products.  Every Station gave us some words from London’s Victorian underground (just a few of our favorites dollymop, lushington, and gonoph).  Mental Floss detailed 15 words for which there is no English equivalent  (though we’d argue that for number eight, the Turkish gumusservi, “moonlight shining on water,” there is one: moonglade).  Gothamist let us know that Scrabble street signs will be back in Queens, New York this fall.

Finally we wanted to congratulate Sue Fondrie for writing 2011’s worst sentence in English and winning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction annual bad writing contest. Without further ado, here is Ms. Fondrie’s winning entry:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Ah, those bloody, sparrow-like pieces of memories, I know them so well. (“Sookie!”)

Till next week!

This Week’s Language Blog Roundup

It’s time again for our weekly Language Blog Roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite blogs and the latest in word news.

First up, the Bee! Congratulations to Sukanya Roy! The eighth-grader from South Abington Township, PA won with cymotrichous, “characterized by having wavy hair.” Congrats also to all the spellers for their stupendous performances! Check back here on Monday for full recap, as well as a couple of fun announcements.

Last week the word world lost an important figure with the passing of Gil Scot-Heron. A “notable voice of black protest culture . . . and an important early influence on hip-hop,” he was a spoken word artist and musican who rose to prominence in the 1970s. You can learn more about Scot-Heron’s life and work at his official website.

The New York Times discussed another man of letters in its review of Joshua Kendall’s The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. While most famous for penning that famous dictionary, he was also “notably dislikable,” as well as “[a]rrogant, condescending, humorless and socially tone-deaf.”  We still like him.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal spoke with a modern lexicographer challenged with keeping up with today’s rapidly changing slang while Fully (sic) railed against an old Australian law that hasn’t caught up with modern times, namely the Summary Offences Act (1966), which rules that one may be fined for “antisocial behavior,” including “sing[ing] an obscene song or ballad.” Perhaps to avoid the fine, one may want to use one of Arnold Zwicky’s many suggestions for replacements of, shall we say, the king of four-letter words (we like frak).

The Columbia Journalism Review listed some other words and phrases one may want to avoid, as well as a recent word best described as “wish it wasn’t the word of the week” – Weiner (there, we said it).  Johnson considered legalese and misunderstandings around euphemisms, while the Dialect Blog blogged about l vocalization; the difference between a pub and a bar (pub = cozy, bar = sleazy?); the supposed Fargo accent; and the relationship – or lack thereof – between climate and accent.

While we’re on accents, NPR had a story on the curious case of the foreign accent, incidents of individuals suddenly acquiring an accent, probably as the result of head trauma, while there were reports that bilingualism is no big deal for the brain, and in may in fact be an advantage. While that may be true for most people, this translator of cruise ship memos, pointed out by Language Log, seemed to have trouble (“Timid and rapidly grown prostitutes, anyone?”).

K International wrote about the Amondawa, a small tribe in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, unique in that it has no word for time, and instead “see[s] events in the context of life stages and transitions.” They don’t celebrate birthdays or keep track of how old they are, but “change their names to reflect what stage of life they are in and their current role in their community.”  (Sounds good. I’ll be “Phyllis” instead of 40.)

The Word Spy spied TINO, a political candidate who is “Tea in Name Only” and does not actually ascribe to the party’s views; a haycation, or vacation on a farm; the last name effect, or how people with surnames closer to the end of alphabet are supposedly quicker to make purchase decisions; and our favorite, chartjunk.

Motivated Grammar pronounced the “one another” versus “each other” distinction “a bunch of made-up hooey,” and proposed that grammar mistakes may often be due to speedy delivery, rather than ignorance, perhaps one of the many arguments for why the world needs editors.

On a final bittersweet note, Ben Schott announced this week that he is leaving The New York Times, and that “after two and a half years, thousands of posts and tens of thousands of comments, Schott’s Vocab is closing its doors.”  However, he’ll continue to supply Schott Op-Eds for The Times, and you can always follow him on Twitter.

That’s it for this week. Remember, if you have a tip or would like your language blog to be included in our weekly roundup, let us know in the comments, via email (feedback AT wordnik DOT com), or on Twitter.

Wordnik, W-O-R-D-N-I-K, Wordnik

Buzz buzz, the 84th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee starts today!

From May 31 through June 2, elite spellers from around the world will compete for the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee championship. The winner receives some nifty prizes, including $30,000 cash, scholarship funds, and a Nook eReader.

Of course we here at Wordnik love spelling and the Bee, so much so that we’ll be live-tweeting the final championship round this Thursday, June 2, starting at 8:30 PM eastern time. Join us for our live commentary by following us on Twitter.

But we also have all-things-spelling you can check out now, such as tags of all the winning words over the years, from gladiolus“the center part of the sternum; any of several flowering plants, of the genus Gladiolus” in 1925, to last year’s stromuhr, “an instrument for measuring the velocity of blood flow.”

You want lists? We got lists, from unrecognizable spelling bee words, to recognizable ones, (and more here and here). We have lists of potential spelling bee words, of different types of bees, and of words that look misspelled but aren’t.

Speaking of misspellings, Wordnik pal Ben Zimmer spoke with Scripps News about bad spellers in history, including Abraham Lincoln, and the dangers of spellcheckers and automatic correction.

Still not enough bee-ness for you? Think you can guess the word that will win the 2011 bee? We’ve started an open list for your guesses (2011 Spelling Bee Bingo) and if you guess the winning word, we’ll send you a Wordnik t-shirt and other Wordnik schwag! (If you’re not the betting type, you can also play this totally addictive spelling bee game from Visual Thesaurus.)

Also remember to join us on Twitter this Thursday as we live-tweet the championship round.

Best of luck to all the spellers!

Happy 80th, OED

In 1857 the “Unregistered Words Committee” of the Philological Society of London published the report On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries, calling for the creation of a new comprehensive English dictionary. Sixty-one years later, on April 19, 1928, the final fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary was published, covering Wise to the end of W. (Curious about the fate of X, Y, and Z? Me too, but I’m just parroting Wikipedia.)

In celebration of the 80th anniversary of the OED, the Oxford University Press is hosting a series of events around the world. And for the rest of this year, they’re offering the full 20-volume print edition for the low low price of £450 or $850. You can’t afford not to buy it! It’ll probably hold its value better than your stock portfolio, and it’s certainly a lot more fun.

October 12-13
Oxford University, Oxford, England
Charlotte Brewer
Ammon Shea
John Simpson
Simon Winchester

October 22
Century Club, New York, NY
Simon Winchester
Ammon Shea
Jesse Shedlower

November 13, 6:00pm, Brattle Theater
Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA
Ammon Shea
Jesse Sheidlower
Simon Winchester

November 18, 7:30-9:00pm
Philadelphia Free Library, Philadelphia, PA
Ammon Shea
Jesse Sheidlower
Barbara Wallraff

Requiem for a Wordie

My dad sent me this one (clipped from the paper, in an envelope, via post. John Sr. kicks it old school). It’s the obituary of Eugene Ehrlich, a self-educated lexicographer and the author of 40 dictionaries.

Ehrlich wrote “The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate,” “Veni, Vidi, Vici: Conquer Your Enemies, Impress Your Friends with Everyday Latin,” and “Les Bons Mots, or How to Amaze Tout le Monde with Everyday French.” Shortcuts to tarting up your vocabulary without having to read lots of books or learn other languages.

I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but Ehrlich sounds like a bit of a snob*. His aim seems to have been teaching people how to appear smart by showing them big words. I wonder what he would have thought of Wordie, which is full of people who know they’re smart and enjoy words in all sizes. Erudite people snickering at poop.

He probably would have hated it, but still, hats off to a guy who wrote 40 dictionaries, and on his deathbed was correcting the use of “who” as a prepositional object.

* Of course I’m talking out of my ass again, seeing as I’ve never actually read any of Ehrlich’s books. If anyone has, could you enlighten us in the comments?