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The British author took millions of children on grand adventures in his fanciful books and invented enough words to fill a dictionary. Writer Helen Cordery tells us about the writer whose real life was as exciting as his stories.
Text: Helen Cordery

ords like “scrumdiddlyumptious” and “gigantuous” may not roll off the tongue, but for millions of English-speaking children, they’re important parts of the magical worlds created by beloved author Roald Dahl.

“They are some of the most creative stories I’ve ever read—they’re magical”, writes Leesa Rasp, a political scientist from the U.S. “Dahl writes in such a humorous manner, too. I always love how much my daughter and I laugh together when we read his books”.

Roald Dahl was born on 13 September 1916 in Llandaff, Wales. He was the son of Norwegian immigrants; his father was a prominent shipbroker who moved to Wales in the 1890s. Dahl lost his older sister when he was 3, and his father died not long after. His mother was pregnant with Dahl’s fourth sibling at the time, and the strength she exhibited during this time of crisis is a theme that can be found in most of his stories.

When Dahl was 8, he was sent to boarding school in England, which at the time was a very popular way to strengthen British identity and to make children “grow up”. Dahl was known as a practical joker, and he was sent to England after a fierce beating by his local school principal for one of these jokes. The letters he would write home to his mother each week later became the basis for his autobiographical novel, Boy.

He finished his schooling in 1934, then went to live in Tanzania as part of the Shell Oil Company. In 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force and served as a pilot during the Second World War. During his service he crash-landed in Egypt and, after extensive damage to his skull, spine and hip, he transferred to the United States as an assistant air attaché. In Washington, D.C., Dahl began writing, submitting stories and articles for The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post.

His first venture into children’s writing was The Gremlins, published in 1942 for Walt Disney. It did not receive much attention, so Dahl went back to writing for adults, including Someone Like You, which won the Edgar Award in 1959. In 1953, Dahl married Patricia Neal, an actress who would later win an Academy Award. They went on to have five children, for whom Dahl would make up stories. One of those stories, James & the Giant Peach, a tale about an orphan boy who goes inside a magical peach and has adventures, was published to great acclaim in 1961. Not long after, in 1964, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory was published, and in 1971 the movie version starring Gene Wilder was made.

Dahl went on to international acclaim as a children’s writer, with several subsequent hits including The BFG, Matilda and The Witches. Dahl and Neal divorced in 1983, with Dahl remarrying not long after. He remained with Felicity, his second wife, until he died of an infection in 1990, at the age of 74.

Dahl’s body of work is so beloved worldwide that many of the terms he invented in his stories have entered everyday language. Oxford University Press has even published a Roald Dahl Dictionary containing 8,000 words made famous by Dahl, and in 2016 the Oxford English Dictionary updated the latest edition to include 10 of his most well-known inventions.

According to Oxford University Press, Dahl created his words from a linguistic base. His inventions came from existing words and rhymes, and included techniques such as spoonerisms, where the first and last letter of a word are switched. Some of the words that can be found in the Oxford Dictionary include: “scrumdiddlyumptious” (The BFG), a take on delicious; “oompa loompa” (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), the name of the factory workers; “scrumptious” (James & the Giant Peach), meaning tasty; and “splendiferous” (Danny the Champion of the World), meaning magnificent or splendidly fine.

He is also known for tackling rather frightening themes, such as witches or child- snatching giants, and used language to lighten the impact. His stories have simple characters —they’re either good or bad—and life is described matter-of-factly, without any “beating around the bush”, so to speak.

Natalie Bennett, a British artist, said Dahl’s writing style resonated with her. She recalls a quote from Matilda, where mothers and fathers are oblivious to their child being a “little blister”. “This always made me laugh when I was little because I didn’t think adults spoke like that. My grandmother used to really emphasize the little blister part!” she said.

As beloved as they are, Dahl’s creations are not without some controversy. Many of his books have been criticized for having dark themes and badly behaved children seeking revenge on malicious adults. Further, the portrayal of the oompa loompas in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory has been described as particularly racist.

Regardless, Dahl’s creations are still remarkably popular and are withstanding the test of time. Amazon consistently lists Dahl in its top five bestselling authors, with Charlie & the Chocolate Factory the top selling story.

“All his stories have a special place in my childhood,” says Andrew McLaren, a businessman from New Zealand, “but the Mildenhall Treasure … I must have read that about 40 times! I dreamt about discovering it, and if it was real.

Fast forward to 2010, and I’m in the British Museum in London. I’m looking at all the artefacts and curios when I notice a glass case at the end of the Roman History in Britain exhibit, full of silver and gold goblets. Then I see the name on the case—the Mildenhall Treasure! I finally got to see my childhood dream, and I’m not going to lie, I was a little emotional and I get goose bumps even now. Fun tidbit: Dahl donated half the money from the USA sales of that story to the farmer who found the treasure —what a good guy!”

Roald Dahl Trivia

● Dahl’s only son, Theo, suffered a brain injury after his baby carriage was hit by a taxi when he was four months old. Dahl and two friends, a neurosurgeon and an engineer, created a device called the Wade-Dahl-Till valve to relieve pressure in the brain, which has worked for thousands of sufferers of hydrocephalus.

● Dahl’s first wife, Patricia Neal, won the Best Actress Oscar for Hud in 1963.

● After Neal suffered multiple strokes in 1965, Dahl designed techniques to promote her recovery, which are now standard procedure throughout the world.

● His granddaughter is the model Sophie Dahl.

● Dahl wrote his stories in his garden shed.

● Dahl wrote two screenplays based on novels by Ian Fleming, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

● He famously did not like the 1971 film version of Charlie & Chocolate Factory (called Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory).

● His school report famously reads, “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended“.

● The house where Dahl lived and wrote for 36 years is now a museum specifically aimed at children.

● Dahl wrote 19 children’s books, nine short story collections and various screenplays.




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The Words and Worlds of Roald Dahl


Roald Dahl beloved British author, famous for his children's stories. He was born in Wales in 1916 to Norwegian immigrants. He went to boarding school in England and later became a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force. While serving in Washington D.C. he submitted stories to The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post.

He married actress Patricia Neal and they had five children. They later divorced and he remarried. Dahl died in 1990 at the age of 74.

Dahl's first children's book was The Gremlins, published in 1942 for Walt Disney. He wrote many stories for his children that he later published. One of these stories, James & the Giant Peach, became very famous. It is the story of an orphan boy who goes inside a magical peach and has adventures. In 1964 he wrote Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. In 1971 a movie version of this story was made, starring Gene Wilder.

Dahl was also famous for inventing very creative words that can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. For example, "scrumdiddlyumptious" (The BFG), which means delicious; "oompa loompa" (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), the name of the factory workers; "scrumptious" (James & the Giant Peach), meaning tasty; and "splendiferous" (Danny the Champion of the World), meaning magnificent or splendidly fine.

Children all over the world today are still fascinated by his stories. Some of the most popular ones are: The BFG, Matilda, and The Witches. And in the English-speaking world, children continue to use many of the words he invented.

 

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Roald Dahl

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