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January 27th is British author Lewis Carroll’s birthday.  Born in 1832, Carroll is best known for writing “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, and its sequel, “Through the Looking Glass”.  His well-regarded writing style is certainly unique, employing clever word play and fantastical descriptions.

What most draws me to him, though, is his usage of nonsense language.  Carroll had the remarkable ability to make up a word seemingly out of thin air, and yet have that word’s meaning be almost instinctively known by the reader.  His great talent for language shows that the meaning we ascribe to a word depends much on the sound of that word and the context in which that word appears.

Even more remarkably, some of the meaningless words that Carroll created would actually become real words.  The best example is “chortle”, which is a combination of “chuckle” and “snort”.  I have chortled from time to time, and I’m sure most of you have as well.  Carroll realized that chortling was a common, though undefined, human activity, and all he had to do was put a name on it.

My favorite work of his, a wonderful example of literary nonsense, is a short poem entitled, “Jabberwock”:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

It’s one of my favorite poems to recite, even if (perhaps because) half the words are nonsense.  In seven short stanzas, the poem tells a complete story.  First we are introduced to the Jabberwock, a dangerous monster with jaws and claws.  The beast is quickly slain by our nameless hero with a “vorpal blade”.  Finally, there is celebration (“Callooh! Callay!”).

The poem’s whimsical, lyrical cadence really make the story sing.  Sure it is the story of a man slicing off the head of a mythical monster, but it is also so much more.  Using onomatopoeia, colorful words, and old English phrases, Carroll really paints a picture of another, much more fantastical world.  From the very first lines, one is transported to a world of strange creatures (such as “toves”) doing strange things (“gyre and gimble”), and confusion only spurs the reader to delve deeper into the strangeness.

Let’s look at just a few of these strange words.  According to the Humpty Dumpty character who comments on the poem after it is read within “Through the Looking Glass”, “brillig” means 4:00pm, the time of day when you start broiling things for dinner.  A “slithy tove” I might guess to be a “slimy toad” from the sound of it.  Humpty Dumpty explains that “slithy” means both lithe and slimy, and “tove” is actually something like a badger.  And then there are words for which there are no definitive explanations.  For example, Carroll himself claims not to know the source of “tulgey” or “vorpal”, but thoughtful fans have proposed their own definitions.  The wikipedia article, which is several times longer than the poem itself, contains explanations and possible meanings for every one of Lewis’s creations.

And what of the Jabberwock itself?  What exactly is this monster, and where did it come from?  The only description we have is that the Jabberwock has claws that catch, jaws that bite, and eyes of flame.  John Tanniel illustrated the creature for the book, and his drawing is reproduced below.  It appears much like an oversize, long-necked pterodactyl.  As for the name itself, Carroll has stated that “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 and voluble discussion’…”  Therefore, a more modern name for the Jabberwock might be something like Notorious.

The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel (via Wikipedia)

You can still find many references to the poem in media today.  I always chortle when I see a vorpal blade show up in a videogame, such as World of Warcraft.  Not all of Carroll’s created words have staying power, but it is never too late for anyone to start using them.  The beauty of language is that it is always evolving, and any word which was once new and lacking meaning can someday become a part of the lexicon.

Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll, and I sure hope it’s a frabjous one!