Several terms and phrases in the ‘Alice’ books were well known at the time of writing, but nowadays their meaning is less known. Also, to people who did not grow up in the UK or don’t have English as their native language, some words or expressions may be unknown. Furthermore, Carroll sometimes used unorthodox spelling, which may confuse some readers. This glossary explains those words and expressions.
Note that information about Carroll’s unorthodox use of punctuation marks can be found elswhere on this site.
Are there more words you don’t know and you think need to be on this list? Let me know!
A cat may look at a king (AAiW, chapter 8) – Proverb, meaning that inferiors have certain privileges in the presence of superiors. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
As sure as ferrets are ferrets (AAiW, chapter 4) – Apparently this was a current phrase in Lewis Carroll’s time. (Heath)
Bathing machine (AAiW, chapter 2) – Bathing machines were roofed and walled wooden carts. They were dragged into the sea and allowed people to change from their daily clothes into swimwear, and to enter the sea directly from the cart. This was especially useful for ladies, because it enabled them to bathe decently.
Breath of bale (TTLG, prefatory poem) – Breath of sorrow (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Catching a crab (TTLG, chapter 5) – Rowing slang, which means dipping the oar too deeply in the water, causing the boat’s motion to make the handle hit the rower’s chest so hard that he becomes unseated. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Chimney piece (TTLG, chapter 1) – In American English this is called ‘the mantle’. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Comfits (AAiW, chapter 3) – Hard sweetmeats made by preserving dried fruits or seeds with sugar and covering them with a thin coating of syrup. (source: Gardner, M. “The annotated Alice, the Definite Edition”, Allan Lane, The Penguin Press, London, 2000)
Cucumber frame (AAiW, chapter 4) – A kind of greenhouse, consisting of a glass frame meant for growing cucumbers. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Deal box (TTLG, chapter 8) – A box made of fir or pine wood. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Draggled (AAiW, chapter 3) – The more usual term used in this situation is ‘bedraggled’. (Carroll)
Fender (AAiW, chapter 2) – A low metal frame or screen between the hearthrug and an open fireplace. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Fiddle-de-dee (TTLG, chapter 9) – A common 19th century synonym for ‘nonsense’ (Douglas-Fairhurst, 180). So when the Red Queen asks Alice “What’s the French for fiddle-de-dee?” and she replies “Fiddle-de-dee’s not English”, she is in fact incorrect.
Flappers (AAiW, chapter 9) – The word ‘flippers’ would be normally used. (Carroll)
Frumenty (TTLG, chapter 3) – a wheat pudding, usually prepared with sugar, spice, and raisins. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Going messages (AAiW, chapter 4) – This phrase means ‘running errands’. It is still used in Scotland. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Limed twigs (TTLG, chapter 8) – Twigs smeared with birdlima or another sticky substance, so birds can be caught when they sit down on them. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Much of a muchness (AAiW, chapter 7) – an informal British expression, referring to things that are very much alike or have about the same value. It may also refer to any other sort of sameness in a situation. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Murdering the time (AAiW, chapter 7) – Mangling the song’s meter (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Rowland’s Macassar-Oil (TTLG, chapter 8) – A kind of hair oil, grandiloquently advertised in the early part of the nineteenth century, and represented by the makers (Rowland and Son) to consist of ingredients obtained from Macassar. (The Oxford English Dictionary)
Sal-volatile (TTLG, chapter 7) – Smelling salts (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Shingle (AAiW, chapter 10) – The portion of the seaside where the beach is covered with large rounded stones and pebbles. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Skurried (AAiW, chapter 2) – The usual spelling is ‘scurried’. (Carroll)
Sugar-loaf (TTLG, chapter 8) – A cone shaped hat. The name is based on the fact that in the middle ages, refined sugar used to be formed into conical chunks called sugar loaves. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Teetotum (TTLG, chapter 5) – A small top, currently known as a ‘put-and-take top’, which was often used in Victorian children’s games. It has flat sides, labeled with letters or numbers, and can be spun around. When the top stops spinning and drops to its side, the side that is up indicates what the player is to do. The letter T on one of the sides stood for the Latin word ‘totum’, indicating that the player took all. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Toffy (AAiW, chapter 1) – This is an unorthodox spelling of the word ‘toffee’. Carroll used it in the first edition of the story, changed it to the more common spelling in 1867, and then changed it back in 1897. (Carroll)
Tortoise (AAiW, chapter 9) – In the Victorian era, this word was usually used for land turtles, to distinguish them from sea turtles. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Treacle (AAiW, chapter 7) – Uncrystallised syrup, made during the refining of sugar. Black treacle is also called moleasses. Golden treacle is a common sweetener and condiment in British cookery. (Wikipedia)
Wednesday week (TTLG, chapter 1) – A week after the coming Wednesday. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Whiskers (TTLG, chapter 1) – Sideburns. (Gardner, “Anniversary edition”)
Wow (AAiW, chapter 6) – The Duchess’ lullaby contains the line “Wow! wow! wow!”, in which both the cook and the baby join. Currently the expression ‘wow’ is used to utter surprise or wonder, but in Carroll’s time it may have been an exclamation of pain or distress, like we now use ‘ow’ or ‘ouch’. This meaning of the word can be traced back until around 1919, but may have been in use earlier as well. (Berman)
Berman, Ruth. “Speaking Roughly in Chorus”. Knight Letter, volume III Issue 6* no.106, Spring 2021, p.17.
Carroll, Lewis. Elucidating Alice. A Textual Commentary on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Introduction and annotations by Selwyn Goodacre, Evertype, 2015.
Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. The Story of Alice. Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland. Vintage, 2016.
Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Alice. The definitive edition, Allan Lane, The Penguin Press, 1998.
Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Alice. 150th anniversary edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Heath, P.. The Philosopher’s Alice. St. Martin’s Press, 1974.
The Oxford English Dictionary. www.oed.com/view/Entry/111773?redirectedFrom=Macassar-Oil#eid38456606, accessed on 8 January 2020.
“Treacle”. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treacle, accessed on 8 January 2020.