By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Jabberwocky’ is one of the most beloved poems in the English language, perhaps not least because it does such interesting things with that language. A masterpiece of nonsense verse, ‘Jabberwocky’ is also a highly quotable work, and it’s chock-full of memorable lines and puzzling words.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important quotations from Lewis Carroll’s poem, which was included in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass.
‘’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe’.
‘Jabberwocky’ starts as it means to go on: by throwing a number of neologisms or new words at us. These are nonce-words but also nonsense-words, invented by Carroll with the intention of getting us to scratch our heads in confusion. What is ‘brillig’? And what is a ‘tove’?
Thankfully, after Alice has encountered the poem in Through the Looking-Glass, she meets the character of Humpty-Dumpty, who explains the meanings of some of these troublesome words, which Carroll coined specially for this poem.
He explains, for instance, that ‘brillig’ ‘means four o’clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.’
‘Slithy’, meanwhile, denotes something that is both lithe and slimy. The word is a blend of the sounds and meanings of those two adjectives. But Humpty-Dumpty doesn’t call such words ‘blends’ (the linguistic term for them): instead, he comes up with his own term, portmanteau word, because, as he goes on, ‘it’s like a portmanteau [a kind of bag]—there are two meanings packed up into one word.’ We have discussed the phenomenon of the portmanteau word in a separate post.
‘Toves’, meanwhile, are very strange creatures indeed: ‘something like badgers—they’re something like lizards—and they’re something like corkscrews.’
Still, the corkscrew comparison explains why they might ‘gyre’ (move round and round, as in a gyroscope). They also ‘gimble’ or ‘make holes like a gimlet’. Alice is clearly a natural when it comes to learning these strange new words, since she correctly deduces that a ‘wabe’ is ‘the grass-plot round a sun-dial’, which is quite the surmise.
Humpty-Dumpty confirms that this is ‘because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it’ (emphasis added).
‘All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.’
More new coinages come at us in this quotation, which completes the first quatrain (four-line stanza) of the poem. ‘Mimsy’ is another portmanteau, combining ‘flimsy’ and ‘miserable’, while a ‘borogove’ is another fantastical creature invented by Carroll: ‘a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round—something like a live mop’.
As for ‘mome raths’, a ‘rath’ is another invented animal, a kind of green pig, while ‘mome’ … well, even Humpty-Dumpty isn’t sure what that means, though he guesses it means they are far ‘from home’ (i.e., ‘from ’ome’). And ‘outgrabing’ is ‘something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle’ (Carroll is fond of these words for bodily functions: see also ‘chortle’ below).
‘“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”’
Now we come to the core of the story told in ‘Jabberwocky’: it’s a quest about slaying a monster, the titular Jabberwock. The hero of the story sets off to find and slay the beast, but his father (‘my son!’) warns him that the Jabberwock is dangerous and fearsome.
The point of this quotation is that it establishes the peril the hero faces, before he goes off to face his terrifying foe.
‘“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”’
The hero’s father also warns about some other creatures. Apparently it isn’t just the Jabberwock that he needs to watch out for: a couple of other (made-up) beasts, the ‘Jubjub bird’ and the ‘Bandersnatch’ are also to be avoided. The word ‘frumious’, used to describe the Bandersnatch, is a blend of ‘fuming’ and ‘furious’.
But in Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll – or Humpty-Dumpty – doesn’t provide any additional information about the Jubjub bird or the Bandersnatch. However, in his later poem, The Hunting of the Snark (1876), Carroll tells us more about the Jubjub bird, describing its distinctive cry:
Then a scream, shrill and high, rent the shuddering sky,
And they knew that some danger was near:
The Beaver turned pale to the tip of its tail,
And even the Butcher felt queer.
He thought of his childhood, left far far behind—
That blissful and innocent state—
The sound so exactly recalled to his mind
A pencil that squeaks on a slate!
The same poem also provides more detail about that other creature, the Bandersnatch, which has ‘frumious jaws’ it uses to snap at its prey, and a long neck.
‘He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.’
Perhaps the two most successful portmanteau words invented in ‘Jabberwocky’ are found towards the end of the poem, after our plucky hero has completed his quest, slaying the Jabberwock and galloping home triumphantly (hence ‘galumphing’, which has since entered common use – or fairly common, at least).
“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.’
Let’s conclude this pick of quotations from ‘Jabberwocky’ on a celebratory note, with these words from the hero’s father, who is overjoyed to discover his son was successful in his quest. The word ‘frabjous’ means roughly ‘splendid’, ‘fabulous’, or ‘joyous’, and is another coinage of Carroll’s.
As for ‘chortled’, that is – of all the words Carroll invented in ‘Jabberwocky’ – the one that has become the most commonly used beyond the poem itself. ‘Chortle’ is another portmanteau, blending ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’: it’s a snort-laugh. Whenever you hear someone use the word, remember we owe Lewis Carroll for its existence.