, Newburyport, MA


November 12, 2012

Whence 'Jabberwocky'?

Almost everyone around here knows the excellent bookstore of that name. Most people probably know where the name came from, or at least have stood in uffish thought about it. But perhaps not so many have not refrained from neglecting to avoid reading its source book, “Alice in Wonderland.”

People acquainted with English literature — or with animated movies for that matter — will recognize “Jabberwocky” as the title of an absurd and delightful poem in “Alice in Wonderland,” the timeless creation of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, whose nom de plume was Lewis Carroll. Born in 1832, he was (curiouser and curiouser) primarily a teacher of mathematics, who in 1865 was inspired by the enthusiasm of a young girl named Alice Liddell to write this great English classic. The story is that while he rowed the Liddell sisters around a lake, he spun a fascinating yarn for them. Alice loved it so much that she induced Dodgson to put it on paper. He did, and it became the “Alice” we know and love.

“Alice in Wonderland has attracted more “serious” adult attention than nearly any other children’s book in the world ... it has also long been a favorite for adults who enjoy the logical, linguistic, and mathematical games which Carroll built into his stories. It is one of the most often-quoted books in English, up there with the big boys like the Bible and Hamlet” ( Alice and its sequel, “Through the Looking Glass,” also pass the good-children’s-book test: They are fun for adults too.

While he taught mathematics and contributed to that discipline, the most serious impact of his writing was upon language, in large part through this unique, entertaining story. Throughout the book he playfully uses words in ways that make us think much more about what we say and how we say it. He invented words, some of which, like “chortle,” now have a recognized place in the language.

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