Nonsense words from British children's literature

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Here in Britain, we love nonsense words - our children’s literature, in particular, is full of them. A few weeks ago I looked at the nonsense word ‘Quidditch’ from the Harry Potter series and my last post was on Roald Dahl’s inventive use of language in The BFG. Here are three more examples of children’s writers who have invented nonsense words:

  1. Edward Lear, the poet and author, is well known for his creative use of nonsense words. My personal favourite example appears in a few of his works, the most famous being his poem The Owl and the Pussycat:

    ‘They dined on mince, and slices of quince
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
    And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
    They danced by the light of the moon’

    The term ‘runcible spoon’ has been stuck in my brain ever since I first heard the poem as a child, but what on earth does it refer to? Before today, I had no idea. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes a ‘runcible spoon’ as: ‘a fork curved like a spoon, with three broad prongs, one of which has a sharpened outer edge for cutting’. I don’t know about you, but if I can use ‘runcible spoon’, I’m never using the word ‘spork’ again!
  2. Did you know that the word ‘chortle’ was coined by Lewis Carroll? He used the term in his famous poem Jabberwocky which appears in the book Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and it is a fusion of the words ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’. Other similarly fused (and more nonsense-like) words from the same poem include ‘galumph’ (to gallop triumphantly) and ‘frumious’ (a combination of furious and fuming). Nonsense words are perfect for describing the back-to-front, topsy-turvy, and dreamlike worlds that Alice visits.
  3. Finally, it wouldn’t be right to talk about children’s literature without mentioning our favourite yellow bear. A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh is famous for muddling things up: he believes the word ‘ambush’ refers to a type of plant; thinks the North Pole is a physical pole; and attempts to trap ‘heffalumps’ with his friend Piglet. Like ‘runcible’ and ‘chortle’, ‘Heffalump’ is now in the OED, described as ‘a child’s term for an elephant’.

If you could pick a made-up word to put into the dictionary, which one would it be? Here at Spellzone, we’d like to see floudery!


17 Sep 2013
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