Interesting facts about the classic nonsense poem, ‘Jabberwocky’
1. The poem ‘Jabberwocky’ gave us a number of new words which are now in pretty common use. The most famous of these is ‘chortle’, a kind of laugh that is a blend of a ‘chuckle’ and a ‘snort’. But the poem – which was written, of course, by the fascinating Lewis Carroll – also gave us the word ‘galumph’ (to walk clumsily and noisily) and ‘slithy’, in the sense of ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Jabberwocky’ may also have influenced our modern use of the word ‘mimsy’, though this remains difficult to determine (‘mimsy’ already existed with a similar meaning, though Carroll’s poem probably helped to popularise it). We’ve analysed the language of ‘Jabberwocky’ here.
2. Humpty Dumpty, who explains the poem to Alice, also invented another word. The term ‘portmanteau word’ is now used by linguists to describe words such as ‘chortle’ and ‘slithy’ which combine, or blend, the sounds and meanings of two existing words. (Other famous examples include ‘brunch’, from ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’, and, more recently, ‘chillax’, from ‘chill’ and ‘relax’.) In Carroll’s novel Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Humpty Dumpty tells a bemused Alice: ‘You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’ A portmanteau is a sort of case or bag which opens out flat into two halves – so Humpty’s use of the term (we hope he won’t mind us assuming first-name terms with him, but if he does – well, he’s an egg, for goodness’ sake) is a sort of metaphorical representation of the two halves of a ‘portmanteau’ word, whose meanings and sounds are then packed up into one unit (e.g. brunch). ‘Portmanteau’, by the way, literally means ‘cloak-carrier’, since the bag was used to carry clothes around.
3. It’s ‘Jabberwocky’, not ‘the Jabberwocky’. The title of the poem doesn’t contain the definite article, though that hasn’t stopped many people referring to ‘the Jabberwocky’. But this is incorrect: the creature or monster that features in the poem is ‘the Jabberwock’, and the poem’s title, therefore, is an adjective used to describe the monster: the monster, and the poem, is about Jabberwocks, therefore it’s ‘Jabberwocky’. It would be like referring to a poem about cats as ‘the catty’. Good. Now we’ve cleared that up…
4. The poem’s author, Lewis Carroll, actually drafted the opening of ‘Jabberwocky’ long before he wrote the first Alice book. Carroll – then known by his real name Charles Dodgson – wrote the first stanza of the poem over ten years before the first of the two Alice books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was published. He printed it in 1855 in the little periodical Mischmasch which he compiled to entertain his family. It read: ‘Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves / Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe: / All mimsy were ye borogoves; / And ye mome raths outgrabe.’ The style was meant to be a pastiche of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and indeed the poem shares much with Beowulf in terms of the ‘monster’ versus ‘hero’ motif.
5. There is a computer program inspired, and named after, ‘Jabberwocky’. The poet and new media artist Neil Hennessy created JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine, a Java program which can generate neologisms, or new coinages, much in the manner of Carroll’s poem. Random letters are programmed to group together into probable English words. It’s an intriguing idea, though perhaps nonsense poets will be rendered obsolete by the program? We hope not – and we doubt it.
Image: Illustration for ‘Jabberwocky’ by John Tenniel, 1871; Wikimedia Commons.