Issue 4, 2023

Play with Your Words

article by Zoë Disher , photos by Alamy

What do you do when you can’t find the right words to write your story? You make some up of course!

Fantasy and science fiction writers love to make things up; it’s what they do. They spend a lot of time bouncing ideas around inside their own heads and come up with stories to delight, distract and disgust us. They create places, creatures and inventions, so it’s not surprising that they often create new words as well. Sometimes they borrow words that they like from other languages, and sometimes they make them up altogether. New words are called neologisms and, if people like them enough, these neologisms slip into the English language and become a part of it.

Writers use new words to give a sense of character and history to their work. They also do it because it’s fun, and they love playing with words. After all, why say caterpillar when you can say cattlepiddler?

Gloriumptious Gobblefunk

The author Roald Dahl loved words. He loved the sparky sound of them, the tingling taste of them, the fabulous feel of them. He loved diving into his own head and creating new ones for his books. Sometimes he would fill pages of notebooks with fantastic words to find ones that sounded just right for his stories. He even made up a word to describe the words he made up: he called them Gobblefunk.

Some of Dahl’s Gobblefunk words sound similar to real words—for example, cattlepiddler instead of caterpillar or cannybull instead of cannibal. Words like these are called malapropisms. Other Gobblefunk words have sounds that have been swapped around, such as porteedo instead of torpedo and catasterous disastrophe instead of disastrous catastrophe. These are called spoonerisms. Dahl also liked to play around with silly sounds and rhymes, such as when he invented the names of the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Dahl’s beloved Big Friendly Giant (the BFG) took Gobblefunk to a whole new level. The BFG had trouble with words and made lots of funny attempts that got mixed up on the way. Some examples are gloriumptious for something wonderful and exciting, buzzwangle for a silly idea and whizzpopper for … well, perhaps you should just read the book (if you haven’t already) and find out.


Director Pierre Coffin also had fun with words in the Despicable Me science fiction movies. In them the minions jabber away in Minionese (or Banana Language as it is sometimes called). But what is Minionese? It’s a mix of words from all over the world, combined with lots of food words and nonsense sounds.

Coffin, who is also the voice behind most of the minions, himself speaks many languages. He has a French father and an Indonesian mother and as a child he lived in Japan, Cambodia and France. Perhaps this has something to do with the minion’s multilingual gibberish!

Some of the words that the minions use include hana, dul, set which is one, two, three in Korean and Kan pai which is cheers in Japanese. There are also funny-sounding words, like bananonina for ugly and poopaye for goodbye, as well as lots of food words, like chipolata and profiterole.

If you translate the words to English, the minions’ sentences don’t make much sense. Minionese is more about playing with fun-sounding words. Even though we can’t tell what the minions are saying, their meaning is clear through their actions. The rhythm and melody of the words help to show what they are talking about and how they are feeling. One thing is sure though: the minions’ language is cute and funny—just like they are. Poopaye!

Words to build worlds

Made-up words are great at making us laugh, but that’s not the only trick up their sleeve. They are also used by fantasy and science fiction writers to help build the world where their story is set; to make it feel like a real place with a long history.

In the Harry Potter stories, JK Rowling liked to use words from the ancient language of Latin for spells. Accio means ‘I summon’; Crucio means ‘I torture’; Expecto Patronum means ‘I hope for a patron’ (a patron being a powerful person who will protect you). Using Latin helps to give the idea that the world of magic is old, with a long history behind it. It also makes some of the spells sound familiar, as many English words also have Latin roots. Rowling made up words of her own: muggle for a non-magic person and quidditch, the ball sport.

The master of them all, when it came to creating worlds with new words, was JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien loved words—he saw them as beautiful things and spent his life making up new ones. He made up different words for the elves, dwarves, humans and orcs to speak in his stories. The elves in his stories loved to sing, and their words sounded like music. Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo is Elvish for ‘a star shines on the hour of our meeting’.

Tolkien didn’t just create words, he made up whole languages, including unique alphabets, so they could be written down. An entire invented language is called a constructed language—or a conlang for short. His love of words helped him create a rich fantasy world.

So next time you enter the world of fantasy and science fiction, take time to enjoy the wonderous words you find there. Or why not have a go at making some up for yourself—what strange words are bubbling around in your head?

Who said that?

Digital interactive: