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Snozzcumbers and gobblefunk: How The BFG was inspired by aphasia

Date: 28th July 2016

“I is not a very know-all giant, myself. But it seems to me that you is an absolutely know-nothing human bean. Your brain’s full of rotten wool.”


“You mean cotton wool?” Sophie said.


“What I mean and what I say is two different things,” the BFG announced, rather grandly.

The BFG, a much loved children’s book written by the widely acclaimed and adored author Roald Dahl, has been making headlines recently thanks to a recent film version’s release. Starring Mark Rylance and directed by Steven Spielberg, the film has received a warm welcome from critics and audiences alike.

Now, you may be familiar with the BFG’s unique and charming vocabulary (with “scrumdiddlyumptious” being one word that has passed into general usage since the book’s release over thirty years ago), but were you aware that the inspiration for such phrases were inspired by Roald Dahl’s own wife, Oscar winning actress Patricia Neal, during a period when she suffered from aphasia?

Following three strokes that hit Neal whilst she was filming in LA, the actress found herself unable to walk, read, write, or speak. Gradually over time she relearned each of these skills, however she often struggled with grasping the right words. As Dahl informs us during an interview, instead of saying “You drive me crazy”, she you say “You jake my diagles”. Even from this you can get a sense of the vocabulary there which Dahl lent his character, the BFG.

To see Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, alongside other family members, speak about the incident and the resulting inspiration, you can watch The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl on BBC iPlayer. Click here for the video, and skip to 46 minutes and 30 seconds.

The BFG also, with his stupendously odd vocabulary, reminds us that wordplay is part of learning and mastering language. For a brilliant breakdown of this idea, alongside examples from other notable authors such as Lewis Carroll, read this fantastic article by The Conversation.

The popularity of the recent film confirms that people still adore and admire the imagination of Dahl, and his ability to source inspiration from those around him. As Tom Solomon, a friend of the author once said: “I think he was probably a bit uncertain how to handle the fact that this had come from Patricia’s stroke…It was obviously a terribly unfortunate thing. But what Dahl loved was the language. That’s the thing about The BFG, isn’t it? The sheer joy of playing with words.”

Sources

BBC 2
BBC iPlayer
RadioTimes
The BFG, Roald Dahl (1982)
The Conversation

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