Note: This is an essay I presented for my History of the English Language class in April of 2003.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.” (Carroll 113)
This quote from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There seems to perfectly summarize Lewis Carroll’s outlook on his relationship with language. Throughout his entire life he bent it to his will – reshaping, reinventing and ultimately mastering it. The legacy he left behind is one that every generation since has experienced, even if they don’t realize it. Carroll’s nonsense language has entered the standard English language, and been effected by it in ways most people would not even recognize, either by popular cultural phrases or even just words.
This paper will explore the Alice books and more specifically the poem “Jabberwocky” as its prime examples of Carroll’s tinkering with the English language. Carroll plays with language throughout all of his literary works, such as The Hunting of the Snark and Sylvie and Bruno, but the Alice books are his most well-known, and that is why I have chosen them to research.
Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. It comes as a surprise that the writer of such elaborately imaginative and vigorously nonsensical works should be “a fastidious, reserved, and deeply religious Victorian mathematics don” (Cohen xix). But the key to the heart of Dodgson lies within his childhood, and the “happy summer days” (Wonderland Carroll 177) of his youth.
Dodgson was born on January 27, 1832, and grew up in the parsonage of Daresbury in Cheshire. He had numerous siblings. Dodgson would put together little books, magazines, and periodicals for his brothers and sisters that were full of nonsense and wordplay. They were meant to entertain and delight. These were the precursors to Dodgson’s later writing, such as the Alice books. Morton N. Cohen’s biography of Dodgson explains:
“Ever in the company of children as he grew, he became accustomed not only to
their presence but also to their childish ways. He noticed how their minds and
hearts were moved naturally, spontaneously. In time, perhaps through a
combination of biological, spirtitual and psychological forces, this interest
developed into a need, an essential component of his own happiness” (106).
The memories of his childhood were an everlasting fount of inspiration for Dodgson to draw from. This fountain of inspiration never seemed to stop flowing, and it always remained a vital part of his written works. There is a sense in many of his later works of a kind of sadness and detachment from his early years, and a yearning to return to their innocence and wonder.
It should, in fact, be no surprise that the man who inspired the games and play of children the world over held a special place in his heart for that amazing entity that is a child’s imagination. He encapsulated in his writing the wild, unfaltering attitudes of childhood, and by doing so was able to retain the purity and sense of wonder adults so often lose as they mature. He discovered his own fountain of youth.
Looking back it could be viewed that Dodgson lived a very solitary, lonely existence. He spent all of his adult life at Christ Church, Oxford, teaching and writing. He never married. But his life was full of people. He had many comrades and acquaintances at the university, and many “child-friends” whom he befriended. He wrote an endless amount of letters, and kept them all, filing them away neatly and orderly: “He was a systematic record-keeper, and in fact devised a Register of Letters Received and Sent, with a précis of each alongside its date and entry number…That Letter Register has not survived, but we know that the last number recorded there was 98, 721” (Selected Letters ed. Cohen viii). It is obvious that Dodgson was anything but a hermit and anti-social.
Having said this, though, it must be stated that Dodgson had a difficult time communicating with others. He had an embarrassing stutter, which often made him self-conscious about speaking. When he was around children, however, this impediment magically disappeared. He seemed to be able to communicate with them best, probably because he lived half in their world, and half in an adult’s.
The most famous of Dodgson’s many “child-friends” were the Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith. They were the daughters of the then dean of Christ Church, Henry George Liddell. It was for the middle sister, Alice, that Carroll wrote his Alice books. The first germination of the story took place on a sunny early July day, when Dodgson took the Liddell sisters out boating on the Thames with his friend Duckworth. The little girls demanded a story from Dodgson, and he was quick to comply. Thus, Alice’s adventures were born.
If it weren’t for Alice, however, the story would never have been written down. She kept pestering Dodgson to write down the story for her, which he did eventually, albeit much later. She received her own hand-written and illustrated copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground “as an early Christmas present on November 26, 1864” (Bjork 75). Dodgson later expanded the story and finally published it under the title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There would follow some years later.
Dodgson’s own pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, is an example of how he played with language. Lewis Carroll is “a Latinized reversal of his first two names, Charles Lutwidge” (Cohen 72). After the success of the Alice books, he became very sensitive about the use of his nom-de-plume: “He returned unopened letters that arrived at Christ Church addressed to Lewis Carroll; he sought, unsuccessfully, to have Bodley’s Librarian delete from the catalogue cross-references to his two names; he wrote third-person letters objecting to correspondents making the connection” (Cohen 191).
He made sure to specify in his life that Carroll was the nonsense writer, and Dodgson the orderly mathematician. It almost seemed as if he led two very different lives. Since Dodgson made this distinction himself, I will refer to him as Carroll throughout the rest of this paper, for in his eyes it was Carroll responsible for writing the Alice books and “Jabberwocky,” and not Dodgson.
Wordplay is predominant throughout both the Alice books. Just as Carroll writes about cards, croquet, and chess games in the Alice books, language and conversation are displayed as games that can have endless variations and rules. Elementary puns and riddles with no answers are sprinkled throughout the Wonderland landscape, almost as real and tangible as the crazy characters Alice meets during her adventures. As Kathleen Blake explains in her book Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll, “…the Alice books are famously nondidactic and playful. Games abound in them, at various levels: there are the jokes and riddles, aimed as much at the reader as at Alice…The creatures share a mania for play, from the caucus-race on. Humpty Dumpty treats conversation itself as a game” (12).
Alice’s own speech is often reprimanded throughout the books, making the divisions and rules of language less certain and more malleable. Donald Rackin explains in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning that “The Caterpillar plays a similar role to Humpty Dumpty’s in Through the Looking-Glass:…he is just as rude in his disparagement of Alice’s linguistic habits, demonstrating by his actions that the above-ground conventions of etiquette in social intercourse are meaningless in Wonderland” (45).
There are various satires of poems and songs famous in Carroll’s day littered throughout the texts of both Alice books. Carroll keeps the conventions and schemes of the original works, but fills them with silly words and ideas that would make the poem amusing for the children who know the originals. Most of these poems are no longer read today, so the effect on today’s children is very different than it would have been on children in Carroll’s day. But there is one example that still stands up to the test of time: the Mad Hatter’s recitation of “Twinkle, Twinkle” at the infamous mad tea-party. Instead of the simple poem we are all familiar with, the Hatter launches into:
“‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
…Up above the world you fly
Like a tea-tray in the sky.” (Wonderland Carroll 95-96)
Carroll thus utilizes another way of playing with language, poking fun at the literary world of his day.
It could be argued that “Jabberwocky” is Carroll’s opus, his most brilliant use of nonsense intertwined in language and wordplay. Alice herself sums it up best in Through the Looking-Glass: “‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are'” (Carroll 20-21). As Richard Kelly states in his book Lewis Carroll, “the central interest in ‘Jabberwocky’ is not in its story line but in its language. Our unfamiliarity with ‘slithy toves,’ ‘borogoves,’ and ‘Bandersnatch’ makes the poem fun. The words conjure up associations in our minds that provide a ‘feeling’ for their meanings” (67).
Martin Gardner notes in his wonderful Annotated Alice that “The opening stanza of “Jabberwocky” first appeared in Mischmasch, the last of a series of private little ‘periodicals’ that young Carroll wrote, illustrated and hand-lettered for the amusement of his brothers and sisters” (148). The fact that the fragment appeared “under the heading of ‘Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry'” (148) hints that Carroll had the history of the English language in his head as he wrote the piece, and wanted to intimate at how poetry in the very early days of English might have sounded. “Jabberwocky” is his supreme guess.
Cohen explains in his biography of Carroll that “Early in 1888 Charles [Carroll] engaged in a correspondence with the editors of the school magazine of the Latin School for Girls in Boston. He wrote them…in the third person permitting them…to name their magazine Jabberwock” (443). In the same letter Carroll explained the definition of his created word: “the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wocer’ or ‘wocor’ signifies ‘offspring’ or ‘fruit.’ Taking ‘jabber’ in its ordinary acceptation of ‘excited and voluble discussion,’ this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion'” (Selected Letters ed. Cohen 173).
Humpty Dumpty is the one who deciphers the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass. His confident claim “‘I can explain all the poems that ever were invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet'” (Carroll 115) seems not far off the mark.
At the heart of the wordplay in “Jabberwocky” is the idea of the portmanteau word, a concept Carroll created himself. Gardner states that “Portmaneau word will be found in many modern dictionaries. It has become a common phrase for words that are packed, like a suitcase, with more than one meaning” (215). Our textbook, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal agrees that the “term…has since achieved some currency in linguistic studies” (131).
Many other literary figures were influenced by Carroll’s wordplay, and most specifically his idea of the portmanteau word. James Joyce is the most obvious of these with his Finnegans Wake, which “contains them [portmanteau words] by the tens of thousands” (Gardner 215).
To fully appreciate and expound Carroll’s brilliancy with portmanteau words, the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” will be looked at here. The first stanza reads:
“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.” (Looking-Glass Carroll 19)
After Alice recites the first verse of the poem for Humpty Dumpty, he goes on to explain: “”Brillig’ means four o’clock in the afternoon – the time when you start broiling things for dinner'” (115).
‘Slithy’ is the first example of a portmanteau word in the poem. Humpty Dumpty claims that the word “‘means ‘lithe and slimy’…there are two meanings packed up into one word” (115).
The rest of the words in the first stanza are defined as nonsense words by Humpty Dumpty. The last portmanteau contained within it is ‘mimsy,’ which is a cross between ‘flimsy’ and ‘miserable’ (Looking-Glass Carroll 116-117).
In the original printing of the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” in Mischmasch, Carroll provides a few different definitions for some of the nonsense words, but he summarizes the first verse as meaning: “‘It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hillside: all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out'” (Carroll ed. Gray 248).
Many of the nonsense words that appear in “Jabberwocky” can also be found in Carroll’s later writing. Richard Kelly states that “eight of them reappear in The Hunting of the Snark” (68). The ones that do are ‘mimsy,’ outgrabe,’ ‘Jubjub,’ frumious,’ ‘Bandersnatch,’ ‘uffish,’ ‘galumphing,’ and ‘beamish,’ although they are all used in slightly different ways, albeit retaining the same definitions.
Many of them are now also included in the dictionary, thus displaying Carroll’s influence over the English language. ‘Slithy,’ ‘gyre,’ ‘gimble,’ ‘mimsy,’ ‘galumphing,’ and ‘chortled’ have all made their way into the book of our language (Gardner 152-154). Only a few of them are specifically attributed to Carroll, but all owe their fame and occasional
usage to him.
Carroll’s influence on the language can also be seen in how many phrases from the Alice books have become popular cultural phrases in England and the world. A few examples of these are “much of a muchness” (Wonderland Carroll 101) “meaning that two or more things are very much alike” (Gardner 77), “‘If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that'” (Looking-Glass Carroll 37) “in reference to rapidly changing political situations” (Gardner165), and of course, the Cheshire Cat’s “we’re all mad here” (Wonderland Carroll 84).
Lewis Carroll’s effect on the English language is one not normally delved into and studied, but its impact is most profound. Through his love of play and words, Carroll brought to his language a sense of joyfulness and childlike amusement. Many of his nonsense words have entered the English lexicon, and just as many, if not more, of his whimsical phrases have been on display in our growing culture, ever since the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It is possible that the secret of Carroll’s mastery over words may be found later in that same conversation quoted at the start of this paper between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:
“…Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly
verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much
pleased. ‘I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always
pay it extra.'” (Looking-Glass Carroll 113-114)
Bjork, Christina. The Other Alice: The Story of Alice Liddell and Alice in Wonderland. New York: R & S Books, 1993.
Blake, Kathleen. Play, Games, and Sport: The Literary Works of Lewis Carroll. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Carroll, Lewis, and Donald J. Gray, ed. Alice in Wonderland. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Carroll, Lewis, and Martin Gardner (notes). The Annotated Alice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Carroll, Lewis, and Morton N. Cohen, ed. The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll. Random House, 1978.
Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. London: Macmillan, 1995.
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Kelly, Richard. Lewis Carroll. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1977.
Rackin, Donald. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass: Nonsense, Sense, and Meaning. New York: Macmillan, 1991.