Lewis Carroll includes the poem “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, a fantastical novel about an upside-down and inside-out world. Published in 1871, the book is famous in part for Carroll’s imaginative use of nonce-words, or words employed for “one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer’s works” (“nonce, n.1.”). Linguists recognize these nonce-words as a type of lexeme, or “a word in the most abstract sense” (“lexeme, n.”), that is always a neologism as a result of its singular, specific usage (Malmkjaer 601). While such nonce-words of the author’s own invention appear throughout the novel, they are perhaps the most prominent in “Jabberwocky,” a deceptively nonsensical poem about a monster known as the Jabberwock.
The poem appears in the first chapter of the novel, during which Alice discovers a strange book whose reversed printing requires its reader to decipher its inverted text through a mirror. Yet, upon successfully reading the poem in the mirror-writing book, Alice remains perplexed by the unintelligible verse: “’It seems very pretty,’ she 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! However, somebody killed something, that’s clear, at any rate—‘” (Carroll 20). Indeed, Alice’s reaction to the poem suggests its dreamlike nature. Full of nonce-words such as “slithy” (1), “mimsy” (3), and “frumious” (8), the poem initially sounds like an unintelligible mishmash of nonsense.
However, the grammar of the poem—that is, the internalized rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in a given language (Dobrovolsky & O’Grady 4-7)—evokes a string of semiotic associations that arise from the unique combinations of the individual phonemes in these nonce-words. For example, the word “slithy” (ˈslʌɪθi) combines the phonemes in the words “slimy” (Brit. ˈslʌɪmi) and “lithe” (Brit. lʌɪθ) to create an entirely new meaning that describes the lizard-like “toves” (təʊvs) as they hop and flutter about like toads (Brit. təʊds) and doves (Brit. dʌvs) in the first line of the poem. As the character Humpty Dumpty later explains to Alice, “You see it’s like a portmanteau, there are two meanings packed up into one word” (Carroll 198-9). Thus, while the initial effect of this neologising is disorienting, an undercurrent of meaning is present in Carroll’s language. The author splices together different phonemes into nonce-words like our sleeping brains splice together different thoughts and experiences from our waking lives into our most bizarre and outlandish dreams.
Carroll, Lewis, et al. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. MacMillan Children’s Books, 2018.
Dobrovolsky, Michael, and William O’Grady. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. Longman, 2007.
“lexeme, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/107765. Accessed 14 September 2019.
Malmkjær, Kirsten. The Linguistics Encyclopedia. Routledge, 2002.
“nonce, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/127827. Accessed 14 September 2019.