Thursday, October 13, 2016

Carrie Clickard: Making Good Use of Made-Up Words

Hear that siren? 

That's because Carrie Clickard just pulled up for another visit to Today's Little Ditty.

Today's Rhyme Crime Investigation comes in response to a reader's request for rhyming poetry mentor texts that use made-up words or words with unusual spelling.

While Carrie's posts always leave me with a smile on my face, this one includes so much fun verse, I suggest you get ready for a full-scale smile muscle workout!

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Runcible spoons and slithy toves –  
Making good use of made-up words

During our last Rhyme Crime Investigation, Scanning the Seuss Man, I touched on the subject of invented words. Seuss uses them widely to great effect. Not just Seuss—many of our beloved children's poets, past and present, have played with creating their own words with delightful results. So the question arises, how do poets know when made up words are the smart choice for a poem and when they’re only a crutch?

Now for those of you who have followed previous Rhyme Crime Investigations, you might already have a handle on some of the wrong reasons to use an invented word.  If the only reason you’re creating a word is because no other rhyme works for a particular couplet, you’re on thin ice. The word you create could be brilliant, but it’s more likely to be a noticeable “fake word” that will stand out to both editors and readers—and not in a good way.

Likewise, if you’re altering a word’s shape or pronunciation to fix your meter or to correct a problem with syllable stress, you’ll finish your poem faster but you won’t be fooling anybody.  It can be painfully obvious to see when writers have taken the easy route. You’re better off putting in the hard work of rewriting to eliminate those “weasel” words.

So, you might be wondering, is it best to avoid  using nonsense words altogether? Not at all. The world of poetry would be poorer without them. Some of my own best reading moments were stumbling over gems like the “runcible” spoon in Lear’s "The Owl and the Pussycat" and the marvelous made-up vocabulary of Lewis Carroll’s "Jabberwocky."  But what makes the difference between these poems and the quick fix failures, is that the poets used invented language intentionally, with thought and logic, to make their work stronger or funnier.

So how exactly do they do that?

ONE: The Grand Conceit

Let’s start with what I’m calling The Grand Conceit, the big idea, where an author creates words as part of the core concept of a poem or book. In this case new words are not simply whimsical vocabulary tacked on for a laugh. The invented words form the backbone of the entire work. Take Jack Prelutsky's Scranimals (Greenwillow Books, 2002). The title itself is a clue to where Jack’s going: Scrambled + Animals = Scranimals. The book is a romp through a world filled with chimerical plant-animal hybrids. Prelutsky scrambles not just their names, but the creatures themselves. From Porcupineapples to Toucanemones, you'll be hard pressed to pick a favorite. There’s the elegant Rhinocerose: 
Oh, beautiful RHINOCEROSE,
So captivating, head to toes,
So aromatic, toes to head,
Enchantress of the flower bed …
– Excerpt from "Oh beautiful RHINOCEROSE" © 2002 by Jack Prelutsky
and the lowly but adorable Potatoad: "On a bump beside a road/Sits a lowly POTATOAD..."  or maybe the Pandaffodil or … maybe you should pick up a copy and see for yourself.

In On Beyond Zebra, again we find that the author’s invented words are the stars of the story. Dr. Seuss creates not just new words but new letters: “My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends.”  This idea, the grand conceit of a whole new alphabet brings us "FLOOB" the first letter of  Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs, and the letter "YUZZ" is used for Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz.

Both cases show us invented vocabulary as a uniquely surprising and effective way of stimulating young readers’ imaginations and tickling their funny bones.  But is a big concept the only good way to include made-up words? Definitely not. Let’s look at a few smaller but still savvy ways to use invented vocabulary.

TWO: The Pithy Punchline

The best humorous poems often end with a pitch-perfect, witty last line. There’s something about the timing and rhythm of those last few words that catches us off guard and anchors the poem in our memory. Those endings can be a great place to use an invented word, where the word is an afterthought but the key to the laughter. Take this short poem by J. Patrick Lewis:

Cries a sheep to a ship on the Amazon
(A clipper sheep ship that her lamb is on)
"Remember, dear Willy,
the nights will be chilly,
so keep your white woolly pajamazon!"
            © 1999 by J. Patrick Lewis, from The Bookworm’s Feast
            Used by permission of the author, who controls all rights.

Lewis could have used the standard English words "pajamas on" and still had a perfectly acceptable ending line. So he clearly didn’t make up a word to solve a rhyme problem. Instead, by playing off the opening line’s “Amazon” with a created portmanteau word, Lewis elevates the poem from cute to brilliant.

In another witty word tweak, Lewis gives us a whirlwind of fun with his “Her-i-cane.”
There was a curly her-i-cane,
Her name was Lorelei,
And all she ever wanted was
       To fly, fly, fly.

She wasn't like the other girls,
For Lori never grew
Into a proper her-i-cane
       That flew, flew, flew.
– Excerpt from "Her-i-cane" © 1999 by J. Patrick Lewis, The Bookworm’s Feast
The magic of this made-up word has nothing to do with rhyming at all. It's personification done in a charming, memorable way.  Again, Lewis could have used the ordinary word hurricane and the poem would have “worked.” But by tweaking the vocabulary just a little left of normal, Lewis gave the poem a whole new level of whimsy and fun.

THREE: Who are you calling funny looking?  
Playing with the way words look.

Sometimes the funny isn’t about how a word sounds, but how it looks.  Doubling up on the A’s makes Douglas Florian’s "The Aardvarks" a giggle-producing kid favorite:

Aardvarks aare odd.
Aardvarks aare staark.
Aardvarks look better
By faar in the daark.
            © 2000 by Douglas Florian, from mammalabilia  
            Used by permission of the author, who controls all rights.

In "The Lynx," another charming poem in his mammalabilia collection (Harcourt, 2000), Florian gets the laughs by spelling “stynx” to match lynx. Again, Florian had no need to make up a word so the poem would rhyme, instead he added to each poem’s surprise and wit by respelling words that worked in the first place – the same way Lewis played with Amazon and pajamazon.

FOUR: Do do do it again! 
Words that get funnier every time you say them.

Many of the examples above deal with invented words used just once for a pithy, syncopated “ba-doom-ching” laugh.  But funny can come in bigger doses too. Consider J. Patrick Lewis’s "A Hippopotamusn’t" that gets sillier and sillier as the poem goes on:

A hippopotamusn't sit
  On lawn chairs, stools, and rockers.
A hippopotamusn't yawn
  Directly under tightrope walkers.
A hippopotamusn't roll
  In gutters used by bowlers.
A hippopotamusn't fail
  To floss his hippopotamolars.
– Excerpt from the title poem of A Hippopotamusn't © 1990 by J. Patrick Lewis
Every time the hippopotamusn’t is mentioned, something new and outrageous delights the young readers.  The same way each new line of "The Bear" by Douglas Florian brings another chuckle:

Come Septem-bear
I sleep, I slum-bear,
Till winter lum-bears
Into spring.
More than that's
 © 2000 by Douglas Florian, from mammalabilia  
 Used by permission of the author, who controls all rights.
Both of these authors get their timing and the laughs, just right.  In each case the tweaked or invented words are intentionally planned, wisely used and never just to “make the rhyme work.”

FIVE: Ticklish tongue twisters
The delight of getting words wrong.

Sometimes an author purposefully misuses or misspells a word, and delight of readers of all ages.  We can all relate to the bungled words in Laura Richard’s tongue twisting "Eletelphony."
Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant—
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone—
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I’ve got it right.)
– Excerpt from "Eletelephony" by Laura E. Richards, read the rest HERE.

There are so many more excellent examples, I could keep adding from now till November. (Though I think Michelle might protest.)  What’s clear in each and every example is that the poet used invented words to elevate, entertain and strengthen their work, never in an attempt to fix a tricky couplet. They weren’t just throwing in the word “tweeple” to rhyme with people or matching purple with “burple.” Which, now that I come to think of it, could work if your poem was about drinking grape juice or swallowing grape bubble gum.  Maybe I need to write that poem. Or maybe you do. (grin)

Either way, on that note I will leave you with this bit of wit and inspiration about made up words from Kenn Nesbitt. See you next time on Rhyme Crime Investigations.

Today I Decided to Make Up a Word  

Today I decided to make up a word,
like flonk, or scrandana, or hankly, or smurred.
My word will be useful and sound really cool;
a word like chindango, or fraskle, or spewl.

My friends and my teachers will all be impressed
to learn that I’ve made up a word like extrest,
or crondic, or crambly, or squantion, or squank.
Whenever they use it, it’s me that they’ll thank.

They’ll call me a genius and give me a prize,
repeating my word, be it shimble, or glize,
or frustice, or frongry, or frastamazoo,
or pandaverandamalandamaloo.

You’ll see it on TV shows one of these days.
They’ll use it in movies. They’ll put it in plays.
They’ll shout it from rooftops! The headlines will read,
“This Kid Has Invented the Word that We Need!”

I’ll make up my word, and I’ll share it with you,
and you can tell people from here to Peru;
the old ones, the young ones, and those in between…
as soon as I figure out what it should mean.
             © 2009 by Kenn Nesbitt,  from My Hippo Has the Hiccups 
             Used by permission of the author, who controls all rights.
             Listen to the poem read aloud at

Thanks, Carrie! 

Make sure to check out Carrie's previous Rhyme Crime posts on Today's Little Ditty:

Carrie L. Clickard is an internationally published author and poet.  Her first picture book, VICTRICIA MALICIA, debuted in 2012 from Flashlight Press. Forthcoming books include MAGIC FOR SALE (Holiday House, 2017), DUMPLING DREAMS (Simon and Schuster 2017) and THOMAS JEFFERSON & THE MAMMOTH HUNT (Simon and Schuster, 2018). Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals including Spider, Muse, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Havok, Myriad Lands, Clubhouse, Spellbound, Penumbra, Haiku of the Dead, Underneath the Juniper Tree, Inchoate Echoes, and The Brisling Tide.  

Kenn Nesbitt has challenged us to write poems for our mothers this month. Click HERE for more information, then post your poem on our October 2016 padlet. While I haven't featured any reader contributions yet, I did post two lines from author John Irving this week. Stay tuned for more.

Irene Latham is welcoming poets and poetry lovers to Poetry Friday roundup with a fun assortment of scarecrows! If you were a scarecrow, what would you wish for? Find out what Irene's scarecrow has to say at Live Your Poem.


  1. Thanks Carrie - and Michelle - a post that's both fun and informative.

    1. Thanks Sally - This post was especially fun for me -- all those deliciously silly words. Yum!

  2. Delightful! And very educational. Thanks, Carrie and Michelle :-)

    1. Thanks Penny! It's easy to be entertaining when you have such great poets to quote.

  3. Always rich learning from you, Carrie. Glad to read your post today!

    1. Kind of you to say, Linda. I learn right along while I'm writing it too!

  4. Entertaining and educational! Thanks for the overview and all the fun excerpts!

    1. Hard not to have fun surrounded by such masters of whimsy. It's contagious. Thanks, JoAnn.

  5. Definitely inspiring and educational for us aspiring poets! :)

    1. Don't their poems just make your fingers itch to write? Me too! Thanks Jane

  6. Great fun, Carrie--thanks for these terrific examples.

    1. I was spoiled for choice Buffy, with these authors. And thanks, it's always fun to hang here at TLD.

  7. I loved this post - fun, informative, great examples. Thanks.

  8. Thanks Carrie and Michelle! I always feel smarter when I leave these posts... and today I am smiling, too. Thank you! xo

    1. I had the most fun researching this post, Irene. I kept turning pages and giggling. Nobody believed I was actually doing "work". Grin. Glad you liked it.

  9. What fabulous examples all pulled together into one post.

    1. If only we had room for all the ones I had to leave out! Glad you enjoyed them. Thanks.

  10. I loved this post. It's such a worthy thing--this playing and thinking about words. Correct me if I'm wrong, but runcible spoon is an actual thing, isn't it? a rounded fork?

    1. The word runcible was coined by Edward Lear and used to describe not just a spoon, but a hat, a goose, a wall and a cat. (Isn't it fun how that rhymed?) In one alphabetical work, Lear refers to "The Dolomphious Duck, who caught Spotted Frogs for her dinner with a Runcible Spoon" and even drew a picture to adorn it. Some modern interpreters have used runcible as an equivalent to a "spork" as you mention, but that really doesn't match Lear's drawing. I like what Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says: "A horn spoon with a bowl at each end, one the size of a table-spoon and the other the size of a tea-spoon. There is a joint midway between the two bowls by which the bowls can be folded over." But I'm still puzzled on how we apply that to a hat, or a cat for that matter. Thanks for the excellent question!

    2. You can see Lear's runcible spoon drawing for anyone who might be curious or like to form their own opinion --

  11. I love making up words, or using ones that sound made up like Kalamazoo. Carrie does a great job using examples to help us figure out then it works, and when it's stinkamazoo.

    1. LOL -- as an ex Michigan girl I love the Kalamazoo reference! And I'll give you credit if I borrow your stinkamazoo. Thanks!

  12. Well this was fun and a neat trick (or tool) to put in my bag. Thank you C.L. and Michelle

    1. How appropriate, as it's almost the season for tricks or treats! I'm glad you found it useful. Thanks!

  13. Thanks for all the fine examples. I learn best by seeing how everything works.

    1. Me too, Diane. Artists study Leonardo & Picasso, so why shouldn't it work that way for poets too? Glad you liked the post.

  14. I love these rhyme crime posts. Playing with words is so important for all writers. It pumps up the creativity. Thank you, Carrie and Michelle. What fun.

    1. That's so nice of you to say, Robyn. Being part of Today's Little Ditty always stirs up my imagination too.

  15. I love this post. I am going to print it out and read it often and post the link to it on my blog. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. Thanks right back at you, Rosi! Your enthusiastic reply has me smiling. So glad you found the information and examples useful.

  16. Such a fun post! Thanks Carrie and Michelle!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I'm always happy to join i the fun with Michell's poetry community here at TLD. Thanks, Tara!

  17. Cor blimey that was fun! I also think of Roald Dahl's cleverness in making up words, particularly in The BFG which I recently reread. It does seem that the menfolk have a bit of a corner on the market in the words of Barney Stinson, "Challenge Accepted!" Maybe I can write a poem for my mother using some witty and uplifting invented words. Thanks, Carrie!

    1. I like the way you think, Heidi! I look forward to seeing you and other womenfolk rise to the challenge. I'm off on a quest now to see if I might just have missed a few she-poets. Thanks!

  18. "Tweeple" "burplel" from Carrie L.C & "stinkamazoo" from Brenda H. I feel as if I've fallen into Michelle's Marvelous Word Factory. This is serious stuff, word-fracking, is & I feel educated a bit more than before. I'm also more informed on the author of "Eletelphony," with the link & then that sent me on a quest. Wonderful to know about Laura E. Richards, Carrie. Appreciations for sharing these well-crafted poems from favorite authors & also for bringing me to a prolific writer of times past, new to me. And I raise my paw to suggest, May I never misuse deertales, or eyedeers, my two favorite made-up words, again. Appreciations, felicitations, salutations.

    1. Thanks Jan, and sorry I missed your comment earlier. "Word-fracking" love that! I will have to remember that for future reference. Glad you enjoyed it. I'm always learning when I rub elbows here at TLD.

    2. Hi Carrie.
      I'm blushing with these sweet words.
      And the lateness of this reply. I heard your name & a switch went on!
      By great golly, big applause for your Florida Book Awards winner!
      Very very cool.
      Hope to meet you at some poem event some day.