Gobblefunk, scat, and the point of gibberish


squitsch, gruncious, bandersnatch, trogglehumper, sneedle, brillig, gimble, once-ler, oobleck, vorpal, outgrabe, spazzim, glikker, zillow, manxome, hopscotchy, thnaders, bar-ba-loots, gyre,
and floob-boober-bab-boober-bubs.

So I’m fairly sure that I am above average in the amount of gibberish I speak.
I listen to a lot of scat music, to bands that slur their words, and increasingly just feel the compulsion to swap out real expressions for meaningless sounds.
Maybe being a teacher, and an english literature graduate, this is a backlash against all the demands in my life to be making a lot of sense to others.

That said, I’m not the one responsible for the list of nonsense above. That’s down to our friends Roald Dahl, Dr Seuss, and Lewis Caroll.
Unlike myself, these guys don’t save the craziness for their home life but actually publish these words in their stories, and stories which are aimed at children in the process of soaking up all the language that comes their way.

The BFG, Through the Looking Glass, and the Lorax are just three of the books that have been incredibly successful and also contain loads of gibberish.
There’s a divide between parents who enjoy the nonsense in these books, and those who find it grating.
But is there any actual value in it except for the opportunity to make funny sounds?


In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice reads a nonsense poem: The Jabberwocky.
After reading it, this is what she says:

                It seems very pretty…but it’s rather hard to understand.

Child reads a poem – poem has mostly made-up words – child doesn’t get the poem.

The Jabberwocky isn’t a very long poem but it still manages to include about 25 words that don’t especially mean anything, so it’s not so surprising that Alice doesn’t completely understand.
Stephen King (and lots of other people) have described words as the tools we use to order and navigate life. Objectively, this means that Lewis Caroll just gave us 25 useless tools (a bit like the garlic crusher, or the t-shirt folder), since there’s no real situation where we can use them to any benefit.
The danger here is that in reading these nonsense words, we are missing opportunities to introduce or solidify real usable words.
Real vocabulary is important, and many parents will feel like answering questions like ‘what’s a YUZZ-a-MA-TUZZ?’, isn’t the best use of time with their child.


Alice goes on to say:

 Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!   However, somebody killed something, at any rate

While Alice doesn’t completely get the poem, she uses her sense of meaning and structure of language to figure out that ‘somebody killed something’. This reveals what seems to be the main value in gibberish. Inference.
Encouraging inference usually requires asking children questions like ‘how do you know that…?’, ‘why do you think she feels that…?’.
Instead, when a word doesn’t make sense, a child is naturally forced to look at the context of the word in the sentence.


Great! So children get loads of thinking skills through inference of nonsense words, and on top of this the people of ‘The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology’ say that inference links strongly to memory capacity too!

But… the smart people at the JECP also remind us that the ability for children to infer is also limited by the extent of their vocabulary.
Meaning that you’re not allowed to only read a child nonsense or they wont have any vocabulary to infer with.

You can see this played out whilst reading Roald Dahl. His so-called ‘Gobblefunk‘ words are combinations of two or three existing words. So if you’ve never heard ‘rotten’ or ‘gruesome’, you probably won’t get ‘rotsome’.

For the best effect of the nonsense then you should probably employ the vocabulary inference sandwich…



So that’s the value in nonsense apart from just making funny sounds.
But also, we shouldn’t forget about the other great thing about gibberish…making funny sounds.

Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen can teach us that words can carry a lot of value and meaning.

Intentionally – through the great scat singers (‘shoo bap wee do bee do whap pow’) and unintentionally through the lyrics of general chart music (‘I can’t feel my face when I’m with you’ – yeesh), I’ve been taught that words don’t have to have any meaning at all to be enjoyed.

Appreciating the aesthetic of sound shouldn’t be underrated.
Take jazz artists Wynton Marsalis‘ Squeek, Rumble, Whomp, Whomp, Whomp.
This children’s book classifies itself as a sonic adventure.
Marsalis, as a renowned jazz trumpet player, chooses to walk us through the instruments of jazz, linking them to the array of sounds we experience in every day life.
In regards to age suitability, the book could span the primary school years quite easily. It offers a lot; from Paul Rogers’ vibrant illustration, to fun sounds evoked in the text, to understanding the combination of sounds found in the jazz genre and a wider appreciation of what we consider as music.
For anyone, a book like this, singing along to scat, or gibberish in general is a good practice in shedding inhibition. Maybe we could all do with giving a bit more time to the sound and aesthetic of words.

Some good advice that Mrs Phelps gives Matilda after she’s been reading some Hemingway:

‘Don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.’

Wynton MarselisSqueak, Rumble, Whomp, Whomp, Whomp

Gregory Christie – When Louis Armstrong taught me to scat

Roald Dahl  – BFG (of course)

Dr Seuss – The Lorax

Lewis Caroll – Through the Looking Glass (The Jaberwocky)

image           image            image            image            image

Listen to –

Slim Gaillard – Yip Roc Heresy

Ella Fitzgerald –  One note samba scat

Written by Joshua Morgan