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Beware the Jabberwock!


If you know me, you know of my love of the Jabberwocky, a poem written in nonesense verse by Lewis Carrol author of 'Alice in Wonderland'. What you may not know is it's meaning or it's history. I will attempt to give you both, including some of my interpretations on this brilliant work of art.

 

Brief History

The first stanza appeared in a publication by Carroll, called 'Mischmasch', under the name 'A Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry'. Within the publication, he gave definitions for the nonesense words in the poem. It then appeared in full in 'Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There', as a poem Alice find in looking-glass world. She would later meet the character Humpty-Dumpty, a self-proclaimed word expert, who told her the meanings of the words in the first stanza (his definitions are very different from the definitions given in 'Mischmasch'.) Carroll would later give many of the definitions of the later stanza's nonsense words in letters and in his introduction to the companion poem to the Jabberwocky

Meaning of the Words
Carroll detailed the meaning of the words in one form or another. What should be realized is that the poem was probably intended to have people come up with their own idea of what the poem meant, especially considering that the person who tells the meanings of the words, Humpty-Dumpty, is not the most reliable person when it comes to word definitions (he can pay words to mean whatever he wants, which has the side-effect of obfuscating what he's trying to say sometimes).

In 'Mischmasch' Carrol gave the following plain English approximation of the first stanza:
"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."

And the following comments on the stanza's meaning:
"There were probably sun dials on the top of the hill, and the 'borogoves' were afraid that their nests of 'raths', which ran out squeaking with fear on hearing the 'toves' scratching outside."

Here is a comparison of the meanings given for the words in the first stanza of 'Mischmasch' and Humpty Dumpty in 'Alice in Wonderland':

Mischmasch

Humpty Dumpty

Brillig (Bryllyg in the original publication)

Derived from broil

The time of broiling, i.e. the close of the afternoon

four o'clock in the afternoon -- the time when you begin BROILING things for dinner

Slithy (Slythy in the original publication)

Portmanteau of slimy and lithe

smooth and active

lithe and slimy

Tove

A species of Badger. They had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag. Lived chiefly on cheese.

something like badgers--something like lizards--and something like corkscrews

Gyre

Derived from gyaour (a dog)

to scratch like a dog

to go round and round like a gyroscope

Gimble (Gymble in the original publication)

Derived from gimblet

to screw out holes in anything

to make holes like a gimlet

Wabe

Derived from swab

the side of hill

the grass-plot round a sun-dial (because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it, and a long way beyond it on each side)

Mimsy

Portmanteau of flimsy and miserable

unhappy

flimsy and miserable

Borogoves

An extinct kind of Parrot. They had no wings, beaks turned up, an made their nests under sun-dials; lived on veal

a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round-- something like a live mop

Mome

Derived from solemome (solemn)

grave

short for "from home"--meaning that they'd lost their way

Rath

A species of land turtle. Head erect, mouth like a shark, the front fore legs curbed out so that the animal walked on its knees; smooth green body; lived on swallows and oysters

a sort of green pig

Outgrabe

squeaked

something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle

Sources:

Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 6: Humpty Dumpty

Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Mischmasck

Jabberwocky, Wikipedia