The Meaning and Origin of ‘Jam Tomorrow and Jam Yesterday, but Never Jam Today’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of a famous expression in a classic work of children’s literature

The more I return to Lewis Carroll, the more convinced I become that he, not Dickens, has perhaps the strongest claim to being the key precursor to Kafka – although there are obviously numerous other contenders for that mantle, including Dostoevsky and Gogol. But something about Alice’s journeys down the rabbit hole and through the looking-glass, and the illogical and irrational figures she encounters on her travels, puts me in mind of Josef K.’s futile and laughable attempts to clear his name in The Trial and K.’s equally doomed efforts to penetrate the workings of the mysterious castle in The Castle.

Indeed, the term that often comes to mind is ‘gaslighting’: like O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Carroll’s figures are often trying to convince Alice that absurdities are true – and that she is somehow the mad one for questioning them. Obviously Carroll’s training in mathematics (his day job was a don at Oxford, teaching and researching the subject) played a significant part in inspiring his gloriously inventive and fantastical realms of illogic in the two Alice books, but it’s strange how he can be enjoyed equally by adults in light of changes to our social and political world since. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that half of our current political leaders sided with the Mad Hatter and the White Queen and secretly wish they were the ones psychologically manipulating poor Alice!

The phrase ‘jam tomorrow’, or, in full, ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today’, is from the second Alice book, Through the Looking-Glass; and What Alice Found There, published in 1871. We often use the phrase ‘we’re truly through the looking-glass now’, in a nod to Carroll’s novel, when describing a world or political system that appears to have gone mad or turned its values upside down. But the expression ‘jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today’ is another relevant quotation here, also found in Through the Looking-Glass.

Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was first published in 1871; according to Alice Liddell, the young girl who inspired Lewis Carroll to write the Alice books, Through the Looking-Glass had its origins in the tales about the game of chess that Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) used to tell Alice and her sisters when they were learning to play the game.

It is the famous White Queen who tells Alice (shortly before Her Majesty turns into a sheep) that the rule in this looking-glass world is ‘jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today’:

‘I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!’ the Queen said. ‘Twopence a week, and jam every other day.’

Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, ‘I don’t want you to hire me—and I don’t care for jam.’

‘It’s very good jam,’ said the Queen.

‘Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.’

‘You couldn’t have it if you did want it,’ the Queen said. ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.’

So begins one of the cross-purposes logic-bending exchanges which the Alice books are full of, so that, as with her discussion about language with Humpty Dumpty in the same novel, Alice finds herself arguing with the White Queen over the meaning of ‘today’ in ‘never jam today’:

‘It must come sometimes to “jam to-day,”’ Alice objected.

‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

Of course, it is confusing, but that is the point of the looking-glass world (where the White Queen lives her life backwards). But the ‘jam tomorrow’ exchange also extends from a broader philosophical and linguistic issue surrounding what we mean by ‘today’: ‘today’ is a specific day, unlike any other, and if today is a no-jam day then that is easy enough to accept. But it cannot always be the case that any given day (which, at the time, would be labelled ‘today’) is a no-jam day. So the illogic stems from the White Queen’s words about ‘the rule’, implying something constant and applicable to all days: ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.’

This lack of logic, then, is how the ‘jam tomorrow’ exchange came to be used – especially sarcastically or sardonically – to describe a situation where things are always promised but never materialise. It’s fair enough saying ‘no jam today, but jam tomorrow’, but then when the next day arrives, you cannot excuse away the lack of jam with the argument that ‘today is today, and the rule says no jam “today”’. For ‘jam’, of course, substitute whatever you wish: funding for key support systems, more jobs for deprived areas, and so on.

And the ‘jam tomorrow but never jam today’ line perhaps explains why I have come to see Carroll as an unlikely precursor to Kafka. The same bureaucratic and political doubletalk used to get out of broken promises is there in Carroll’s characters whom Alice encounters.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

2 thoughts on “The Meaning and Origin of ‘Jam Tomorrow and Jam Yesterday, but Never Jam Today’”

  1. I’m very glad you make the connection with Carroll and Kafka too! I’ve always said that Kafka is Carroll for the adult world. Alice might be in a childlike dream world but Joseph K is in an adult nightmare one.

    • I saw you make that parallel and thought, ‘Ken will enjoy this Carroll post I have scheduled for a few weeks’ time’. Glad to know we’re on the same page! I think if people get the comical absurdity of Carroll, they’ll ‘get’ Kafka’s humour. Love your Alice/Josef K. comparison.


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