Enter Jabberwocky: The Sense of Nonsense Poetry

In case you weren’t aware of this, Lewis Carroll’s original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had a sequel called Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. These days, the two tales are usually combined into one book and called, more simply, Alice in Wonderland.

At any rate, it’s in volume two of this fantastical tale – right after Alice launches herself through the looking-glass – that one of the most well-known pieces of nonsense poetry appears: “Jabberwocky.” The first stanza of the poem is the most familiar:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

In today’s language, that might be met with, “WTH?”

But there’s a lot of masterful poetic fabulousness going on in this poem. Most especially the element of portmanteau – a word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings (e.g. fog + smoke = smog). Carroll uses this linguistic method broadly and often. My favorite portmanteau is chortle (chuckle + snort).

Thankfully for us readers, he leaves it up to Humpty Dumpty to explain to Alice the meaning of some of the unusual words used in “Jabberwocky.” For example, slithy is a mix of lithe and slimy. Then there’s mimsy – a mix of flimsy and miserable. Get it?

Humpty justifies his unusual method of changing the meaning of a few words and combining them in various ways by telling Alice:

“When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Makes perfect sense.

The point here is this: while nonsense poetry may often be used in seemingly childish ways, it’s actually a very grown-up method of writing. The creation of new words! The permission to be whimsical! The opportunity to write a mish-mash of nonsense… just as if you were writing down your crazy dreams verbatim. It’s all so freeing and beautiful at the same time.

While nonsense poetry may not be to everyone’s tastes, if you love Alice there’s gotta be a little bit of a frabjous word-lover in you.

What other portmanteaus can you think of? Let’s try to create an ongoing list here – submit your faves in the comments!

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