The Sweet, But Sad, Origin Story Behind The BFG’s Nonsense Words

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When you are 8, one of the best parts of reading The BFG has to be the delightfully nonsensical words peppered throughout the story. The reader learns that one must not gobblefunk with words, for example, and how a few gollops of frobscottle is really all you need to feel hopscotchy again if you’ve been feeling sad. 

But the origin story behind the giant’s odd vocabulary is more serious and a little sadder than you might expect, according to an article in the December issue of The Lancet Neurology. In it, writer Peter Ranscombe describes a talk given by Tom Solomon earlier this year at the Edinburgh International Science Festival titled “Roald Dahl and the Big Friendly Neuroscientist.” Solomon told the crowd about Dahl’s first wife, the actress Patricia Neal, who suffered several strokes and subsequently had difficulty speaking. Neal’s strokes mostly caused damage to her parietal lobe, a region of the brain associated with many things, among them interpreting the meaning of letters and words. 

After going through rehabilitation, Neal did manage to resume her acting career. But as a side effect of the injury to her parietal lobe, she had trouble coming up with the word she was searching for; sometimes, when she did find the word, it ended up being mostly nonsense. She’d say porteedo instead of torpedomuggled instead of confused, or swatchscollop for food she didn’t like. Later, Dahl worked some of these words into The BFG, Solomon said.

These words and others will likely appear in The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary, which will be published by Oxford University Press next summer, allowing you at least a few weeks to brush up on your conversational BFG before the movie premieres.