, Newburyport, MA


November 12, 2012

Whence 'Jabberwocky'?


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

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