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The Jabberwocky

Copyright 1997 by Cathy Dean  (source of this article)
This text is reproduced on this site with permission from the author

‘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 arm, 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
(Carroll The Annotated Alice 191-97).

It seems very pretty,” [Alice] said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand! … Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t exactly know what they are!” (Carroll The Annotated Alice 197).

Alice’s reaction to Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” is relatively typical. Few people understand what the poem is about. “…Somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate–,” Alice continues (Carroll The Annotated Alice 197). After all, what is a Jabberwock anyway, and how, exactly, does one chortle or galumph? How is it that a poem can be full of nonsense, and seemingly devoid of meaning, but still sound like proper English? The answer to these questions lies in Carroll’s unique ability to manipulate language.

“Jabberwocky” first appeared in Mischmasch, a magazine written both by and for the Carroll family, in 1855 when Carroll was 23. Titled “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” it went like this:

Twas Bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe
(Martin Gardner The Annotated Alice 191).

Carroll later expanded and revised the spelling of his poem for inclusion in Looking-Glass He gave the following as the literal English of the passage. “It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side; all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out” (Gardner The Annotated Alice 192).

Before incorporating “Jabberwocky” into Looking-Glass, however, Carroll apparently changed his mind as to what some of his words should mean, for when Alice discusses the poem with Humpty Dumpty later in the book, he gives somewhat different interpretations.

“That’s enough to begin with,” Humpty Dumpty interrupted: “there are plenty of hard words there. ‘Brillig’ means four o’ clock in the afternoon–the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.”
“That’ll do very well,” said Alice: “and ‘slithy’?”
“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy,’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau–there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

This is the first of several portmanteaus that Carroll used in “Jabberwocky.”

“I see it now,” Alice remarked thoughtfully: “and what are ‘toves’?”
“Well, ‘toves’ are something like badgers–they’re something like lizards–and they’re something like corkscrews.”
“They must be very curious-looking creatures.”
“They are that,” said Humpty Dumpty: “also they make their nests under sundials–also they live on cheese.”
“And what’s to ‘gyre’ and to ‘gimble’?”
“To ‘gyre’ is to go round and round like a gyroscope. To ‘gimble’ is to make holes like a gimlet.”
“And ‘the wabe’ is the grass-plot round a sun-dial, I suppose?” said Alice, surprised at her own ingenuity.
“Of course it is. It’s called ‘wabe,’ you know, because it goes a long way before it, and long way behind it–”
“And a long way beyond it on each side,” Alice added.
“Exactly so. Well then,’mimsy’ is ‘flimsy and miserable’ (there’s another portmanteau for you). And a ‘borogove’ is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round–something like a live mop.”
“And then ‘mome raths’?” said Alice. “I’m afraid I’m giving you a great deal of trouble.” “Well, a ‘rath’is a sort of green pig: but ‘mome’ I’m not certain about. I think it’s short for ‘from home’–meaning that they’d lost their way, you know.”
“And what does ‘outgrabe’ mean?”
“Well, ‘outgribing’ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle: however, you’ll hear it done, maybe–down in the wood yonder–and, when you’ve once heard it, you’ll be quite content” (Carroll The Annotated Alice 270-2).

Unfortunately, this is where Humpty Dumpty, and Carroll, ends his interpretation. We can, however, by means of several methods determine what Carroll is likely to have meant by most of his nonsense words.

The first of these methods is to consider what Carroll told confused readers. For example, in 1877 he wrote to Maud Standen, one of his child-friends, that

“uffish” suggested to him “a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish and the temper huffish” (Gardner The Annotated Alice 196).

In the same letter he points out that

“burble” can be created in the following manner: “If you take the three verbs ‘bleat ‘murmur,’ and warble,’and select the bits I have underlined, it certainly makes ‘burble’: though I am afraid I can’t distinctly remember having made it in that way” (Gardner The Annotated Alice 196).

Carroll also reused eight of the nonsense words for “Jabberwocky” in his nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” One of these words, “frumious,” is explained in the preface.

… take the two words “fuming” and “furious.” Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards “fuming,” you will say “fuming-furious”; if they turn, by even a hair’s breadth, towards “furious,” you will say “furious-fuming”; but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “frumious” (Gardner The Annotated Alice 195).

Several of Carroll’s words have become so much a part of our language that they can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to several of the words defined by Humpty Dumpty, these include “galumph,” which is defined as a combination of “gallop” and “triumphant” and means “to march on exultantly with irregular bounding movements” (Gardner The Annotated Alice 196), and “chortle” which is defined as a combination of “chuckle” and “snort” (Gardner The Annotated Alice 197). It is fairly safe to assume that these are the definitions that Carroll wanted attached to his words.

The final thing to be considered when attempting to find meaning in “Jabberwocky” is that Victorian culture was very different from that of today. Many of Carroll’s words may seem like nonsense to us, but may have held more meaning for Victorians reading his book. For example, “whiffling,” however unfamiliar it may seem to us today is actually not a Carrollian word at all. The generally accepted meaning during the 1800s was in reference “to blowing unsteadily in short puffs, hence it came to be a slang term for being variable and evasive” (Gardner The Annotated Alice 196).

“Snicker-snack,” is another word which would have been more familiar to Carroll’s contemporaries than it is to us. It is probably related to “snicker-snee,” an old word which could be used either as a noun, to mean a large knife, or as a verb, to mean fighting done with such a knife (Gardner More Annotated Alice 178).

The final example of this type is the father’s frabjous chortling of “Callooh! Callay!” Most likely, Carroll had in mind two forms of the word kalos, which in Greek can mean “beautiful,” “good,” or “fair,” and which would have been pronounced “Callooh” and “Callay” (Gardner More Annotated Alice 178).

It is important to note that although without detailed explanation it is difficult to decipher the meaning of the poem, it is still clearly recognizable as being written in English. Carroll used several techniques to keep “Jabberwocky” from becoming complete nonsense.

The first, and most basic, technique used is that all of Carroll’s manufactured words look as if they could be real. The vowel and consonant combinations appear genuine and are easily pronounced, unlike, for example, the Gryphon’s exclamation, “Hjckrrh!” in Wonderland which could not be mistaken for an actual English word (Beverly Lyon Clark “Carroll’s Well Versed Narrative: Through the Looking-Glass” Critical Views 130).

The second technique that Carroll used was to make most of his nonsense words nouns and adjectives with comparatively few nonsense verbs (Richard Kelly Lewis Carroll 57). This allows us to understand, as Alice puts it, that “somebody, killed something,” as the actions being performed are clear, even if who or what is doing them is not.

The third, and final, technique that Carroll used to keep his poems from becoming meaningless is the fact that he used the sound of his words rather than the meaning of the words to express the meaning of the poem. For example, such harsh words as “vorpal,” “snicker-snack,” and “galumph,” serve to heighten the tension of “Jabberwocky” just as similar sounding non-nonsense words might do in any other poem (“Jabberwocky” Fr. The World’s Best Poetry on CD 6).

Another technique that Carroll uses to make Jabberwocky intelligible is his placement of the words in the sentences. Actually this is two-fold. Carroll uses the placement of his words in their sentences to tell us their meanings, and the words placement within the sentences reveal their meanings. This is because, while it is not possible to tell whether a word such as “brillig” is an noun, verb, or adjective. Sentences such as “Look at that brillig,” “I brillig every night before I go to bed,” and “What a brillig cat that is” are all sound equally correct (and non-sensical). It is only from its placement in the sentence that we can determine how it functions within the sentence.

It is immediately clear why this is when we remove all of Carroll’s nonsense words from the first to lines of “Jabberwocky:” “Twas [blank] and the [blank] [blanks] did [blank] and [blank] in the [blank].” The first blank is describing how it was, so “brillig” must be an adjective. The second two blanks appear to work as a group, and since they are both preceded by a “the,” we can assume that the “rath” is a noun, and “mome” is the adjective which describes it. Similarly, the final blank, “wabe,” also preceded by a definite article, must be a noun. The remaining two blanks, “gyre” and “gimble,” must be verbs because they follow “did,” which is generally followed by a verb or two in situations such as this.

It is in this manner that we are able to use our ingrained knowledge of the English language to help us understand what is happening in “Jabberwocky.” Carroll knew this, and arranged his words in a way which would facilitate this type of subconscious analysis.