Bill Long 12/30/07
Only "Chortled" and "Frabjous" Survive..
Few people are unacquainted with Lewis Carroll's (real name is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) nonsense poem Jabberwocky. Appearing for the first time in a complete form in Through the Looking Glass (Dec. 1871), Jabberwocky's first stanza was published by Carroll as a stripling of 23 in 1855 in Mischmasch, a periodical that Carroll wrote and illustrated for the amusement of his family (he was one of 11 brothers and sisters). Already in that first stanza we see some of the brilliance, whimsy, discipline and originality of Carroll. It runs as follows:
"'Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimbal in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe."
Although I have loved this stanza for years for its originality, it is the discipline of it that astounds me these days. He has given us a perfectly structured English-language poetic stanza, where nouns look like nouns, adjectives end in "y" and verbs have tenses ("outgrabe" is supposedly past tense of "outgribe", though I am not griping over it).
The Rest of the Poem
The rest of the "story" followed sixteen years later. Scholars have pointed to a German poem, "The German Shepherd," by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte Foque, translated into English and published in 1846, as inspiring the basic idea of the remainder of the poem. In these five stanzas we have a greater proportion of recognizable English words, and the "action" is thus clearer. Here are the first two of the stanzas:
"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."
So, we see that the basic story relates to a hunt for the Jabberwock, who is some kind of fearsome foe. Three words from these two stanzas are "new" in English, with frumious and manxome being portmanteau words (the former probably collapsing furious and fuming--though why then the presence of the "r"?; the latter being a combination of manly and buxom--"buxom" related to men for the majority of its history), while the other (vorpal) has been taken up in many contexts in English (just do a "Google" search on the word), even though it isn't really a part of spoken or literary English.
In the next section of the poem a word appears that was invented by Carroll and still survives today: chortle.
"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 arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.
Again the "factitious" words, a big word for "made-up" words, in these three stanzas are "uffish," "tulgey," "burbled," "whiffling," "snicker-snack," "galumphing," "beamish," "frabjous," and "chortled." Rather than going through what Carroll thought that each of these meant, I will refer you to the helpful Wikipedia article on the subject. Even though the word galumph, a possible portmanteau of gallop and triumph, occasionally pops up in English, it is chortle which has become a regular part of our language. I would have thought that "beamish," a word that had an attestation before Carroll ("radiant") would have found a lot of resonance in our day, but it only has in the name of "Beamish Genuine Irish Stout." I didn't know, for example, that Beamish Stout is the No. 2 stout in Ireland, and the only stout brand to experience a growth in 2006. "Frabjous," I have learned, is a favorite of spelling bees--being tested in the 2008 kids bee [this note was added May 30, 2008].
I would have thought that "snicker snack," an onomatopoetic word, would also have quite a following in English today. Indeed, I will use it in the future whenever I want to express something that crackles, snaps, or crinkles. The OED says that it is something that is "with a snipping or clicking sound." But who is really to say what the difference between snap, crackle and click is?
And this brings up what I would think is the delectable problem of Jabberwocky. How do you interpret any of the words? Must you agree with Carroll in his definition of them when he provides such a definition? That is, must the word mean what its author says it means? Why must frabjous, for example, mean "fair" or "joyous" (OED) or a "combination of fair, fabulous, and joyous" (Wikipedia)? And, why is it that chortled only seemed to survive? Whereas the OED recognizes "chortle" as another portmanteau word ("chuckle" and "snort"), the Unabridged uses the word "chuckling" to describe it, but it notes that the word has developed in our language to mean things like "to progress noisily" (as a car) or "to express usu. somewhat contemptuous amusement." Thus, this word not only has "made it" in English but has itself now begun the process of development, refinement and redefinition that is the experience of many of our words.
But who would have guessed that "chortle" would have been the word that would have "made it" from this most interesting poem? Galumph is, I think, a close second, but words such as tulgey, beamish, uffish and manxome seemed to have died out even before they got started.
Making it Up As You Go Along
But if Jabberwocky convinces me of anything, it is that I can make up words as I go along, that some of the meaning field of the word is naturally communicated by the sound of it (e.g., 'beamish'), that I can liberally try to invent portmanteau words, and that even when I invent words that seemingly have no connection to anything in English, I ought to do so with joy and lack of inhibition. I think that 2008 will be my nonsense year, even as I try to pull the meaning out of the texts of legal documents, the Bible and Shakespeare. Maybe that is why, more than ever, I need "nonsense" poems and words to rescue me...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long