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A little gobblefunking keeps things interesting

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Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2012 11:22 pm | Updated: 11:55 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — “Don’t gobblefunk around with words!” advised Roald Dahl, the creator of Willy Wonka and some very adult short stories. He was also a first-degree gobblefunker, coining gems like “whopsey-wiffle,” “flushbunk,” and “gloriumptious piggery-jokery.”

Dahl loved toying with our language. “Gobblefunk,” for example, was the language he invented for “The BFG,” his children’s book about the Big Friendly Giant.

In an essay titled “Slang Is Good for You,” Michael Adams of the Oxford University Press agrees with gobblefunking. Adams asserts that slang distinguishes its early adopters from other, less-hip groups, and it “keeps your mind nimble.”

Speaking or listening to rhyming slang is like doing the crossword puzzle in The Sunday Times. Researchers in the UK measured the brain activity of human subjects while those subjects read Shakespeare’s play “Coriolanus.” They discovered that when Shakespeare used words in odd ways, when he put a word typically recognized as a noun to use as a verb — “He godded me,” for instance — the subjects’ brains were suddenly very active.”

Language changes reflect societal ones, and bigger social changes mean significant language alterations. For instance, take Alan Rufus, aka Alan the Red, a pal and second cousin of William the Conqueror who fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and was rewarded by being named Earl of Richmond in York. Rufus died extremely rich, largely by leading William’s forces in the cultural genocide known as “The Harrying of the North.”

The Harrying was amazingly brutal to be so little-known today, but then history’s written by the victors. The resistors of the Norman Conquest fled to Britain’s northlands, where they fermented discontent, installed their own kings, invited foreign invasion, and other shenanigans. In 1069, William responded by killing more than “100,000, with substantial social, cultural, and economic damage,” according to Wikipedia.

“William’s men burnt whole villages and slaughtered the inhabitants. Foodstores and livestock were destroyed so that anyone surviving the initial massacre would succumb to starvation over the winter. The land was salted to destroy its productivity for decades forward. The survivors were reduced to cannibalism.” 

The massacred people spoke “Anglo-Scandinavian” that resulted from repeated Viking invasions. Norman overlords replaced their Danish-descended rulers, but over time, as the website notes, “the descendents of those first Norman thugs would gradually become native and English, their children would be brought up by English nannies, learning English, and English songs, poems, and stories; first English became their second language after their old Norman-French tongue, but later English became their one and only native tongue ... centuries later when the English King Henry V defeated the French army at Agincourt, he was giving his words of command in English.”

The British eventually invaded India, and a similar lingual transformation ensued as Hindi and English merged. In “Hinglish: A Case of Reverse Colonization?” writer Patrick Cox says “English is something of an open-source language: the people who speak it, shape it, and add to it. No one has the authority to exclude words.”

Britain ruled India for 200 years, and in “1886, at the height of British power, a dictionary called ‘Hobson-Jobson: a Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases’ was published. The first part of the title proved a minor scandal, because “Hobson-Jobson” was Hinglish and so socially improper that the compilers hid the final title from their publisher until the last minute.

“Hobson-Jobson” meant “any festival or entertainment, but especially ceremonies of the Mourning of Muharram,” when Shia Muslims beat their breasts and shouted, “Ya Hasan! Ya Hasan!” British soldiers corrupted that into “Hosseen-Goseen,” “Hossy-Gossy,” “Hosslein-Jossen” and finally, “Hobson-Jobson.”

The stuffed shirts eventually eroded away, and we gained “bandana” (from “bandhna, to tie a scarf around the head”), “cushy” (from “khushi, easy, happy, soft”), “jungle,” “khaki,” “shampoo,” “juggernaught,” “typhoon” and many more wonderful words.

Public libraries also are known for inclusiveness. As many viewpoints as possible are represented, and our libraries purchase over 90 percent of the books, DVDs, online music and e-books that patrons request. 

Despite the rumors, librarians aren’t all-knowing. We don’t even know all the words out there, though we do know how to find them. “Words,” as Dahl once wrote, “is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me.”

Greg Hill is director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.

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