, Newburyport, MA

November 12, 2012

Whence 'Jabberwocky'?

As Good As Your Word Jonathan Wells
Newburyport Daily News

---- — 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.

More than a score of these invented words appear in “Jabberwocky,” which, although as you read the poem have no defined meaning, convey a mood and almost compel the reader to use his or her imagination. The first stanza of this poem about how a “beamish” boy slew the Jabberwock is familiar to many:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves,

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,

All mimsy were the borogoves

And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Luckily (or not, depending how you feel about it) the character Humpty-Dumpty explains the meaning of many of these words later on. “I am afraid I can’t explain ‘vorpal blade’ for you — nor yet ‘tulgey wood,’ but I did make an explanation once for ‘uffish thought’! It seemed to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish. Then again, as to ‘burble,’ if you take the three verbs ‘bleat, murmur, and warble’ then select the bits I have underlined, it certainly makes ‘burble’ though I am afraid I can’t distinctly remember having made it in that way.” In the mouth of the Mock Turtle, “reading and writing and painting in oils” becomes “reeling and writhing and fainting in coils.”

At one point in her travels Alice enters into conversation with the Duchess, who is always looking for a “moral.” After a thoroughly mixed-up conversation, the Duchess in a complete non sequitur says, “I quite agree with you. And the moral of that is — ‘Be what you would seem to be, or if you’d like it put more simply — never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’” A typical Carrollian linguistic puzzle. (See also my first sentence.)

Jabberwocky has been so influential that many of its words have made the pages of serious dictionaries; “Galumphing” (a toothsome word that sounds like what it defines) is said by the Oxford English Dictionary to be a combination of “gallop” and “triumphant.” “Fair, fabulous, and joyous” are proposed as the source words for “frabjous,” another example of the creations Carroll called “portmanteau” words.

If you haven’t read “Alice” recently, find your copy or borrow one from the library. You may have considered it a child’s book, but it is far more. Carroll’s unique style and imaginative approach, of which this column offers only the smallest taste, illustrates for us entertainingly the innumerable complexities and possibilities of the English language. Find a child or grandchild to read it to!

In this political season, one might remember the Humpty-Dumpty principle. Humpty-Dumpty has just used a word wrongly (by dictionary standards) and Alice calls him on it. “When I use a word,” he replied scornfully, “it means just what I choose it to mean … .” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.” No better time than now take Carroll’s language lessons to heart.


Jonathan Wells of Newbury invites readers to contact him at