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For other uses, see Jabberwocky (disambiguation).

The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel.

"Jabberwocky" is a poem of nonsense verse written by Lewis Carroll, originally featured as a part of his novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872). The book tells of Alice's travels within the back-to-front world through a looking glass. While talking with the white king and queen (chess pieces) she finds a book written in a strange language that she can't read. Understanding that she is travelling in an inverted world, she sees it is mirror-writing. Finding a mirror and holding it up to a poem on one of the pages, she reads out the reflection of "Jabberwocky". She finds it as puzzling as the odd land she has walked into, which we later discover is a dreamscape.[1]

It is considered to be one of the greatest nonsense poems written in the English language.[2][3] The playful, whimsical poem became a source of nonsense words and neologisms such as 'galumphing', 'chortle' and 'Jabberwocky'.

Origin and publication

The poem was written during Lewis Carroll's stay with relatives at Whitburn, near Sunderland, although the first stanza was written in Croft on Tees, close to nearby Darlington, where Carroll lived as a boy.[4] The story may have been inspired by the local Sunderland area legend of the Lambton Worm, as explored in the books A Town Like Alice's by Michael Bute (1997 Heritage Publications, Sunderland) and "Alice in Sunderland" by Brian Talbot. Roger Lancelyn Green suggested in the Times Literary Supplement (1 March 1957), and later in The Lewis Carroll Handbook (1962), that the rest of the poem may have been inspired by an old German ballad, "The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains". In this epic poem, "a young shepherd slays a monstrous Griffin". The poem was translated into English by Lewis Carroll's relative Menella Bute Smedley in 1846, many years before the appearance of the Alice books.[5] The inspiration for the Jabberwock may also have come from a specific tree in the gardens of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll was a mathematician. Its ancient twisted branches may have reminded him of tentacles or the hundred-headed Hydra of Greek mythology.[citation needed] English computer scientist and historian Sean B. Palmer also suggests a possible Shakespearean source for the monster.[citation needed]

The first stanza of the poem originally appeared in Mischmasch, a periodical that Carroll wrote and illustrated himself for the amusement of his family. It was entitled "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." John Tenniel reluctantly agreed to illustrate the book in 1871 and his are still the defining images of the poem. The illustration of the Jabberwock may reflect the contemporary Victorian obsession with natural history and the fast-evolving sciences of palaeontology and geology. Stephen Prickett notes that in the context of Darwin and Mantell's publications and vast exhibitions of dinosaurs, such those at Crystal palace from 1845, it is unsurprising that Tenniel gave the Jabberwock "the leathery wings of a pterodactyl and the long scaly neck and tail of a sauropod." [6]


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

“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.

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.

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

from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872).

Many of the words in the poem are playful nonce words of Carroll's own invention, without intended explicit meaning. When Alice has finished reading the poem she gives her impressions:

'It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, 'but it's rather hard to understand!' (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) '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' [1]

This may reflect Carroll's intention for his readership; the poem is, after all, part of a dream. In later writings, he discussed some of his own created lexicon, commenting that he didn't know his source for some of the words; the linguistic ambiguity and uncertainty throughout both the book and the poem, may largely be the point. [7] In Through the Looking-Glass, the character of Humpty Dumpty gives comments on the non-sense words from the first stanza of the poem, however Carroll's personal commentary on several of the words differ from Humpty's. For example, following the poem, a 'rath' is described by Humpty as "a sort of green pig". [8] Carroll's notes for the original in Mischmasch suggest a 'rath' is "a species of Badger" that "lived chiefly on cheese" and had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag.[9] The appendices to certain Looking glass editions however, state that the creature is "a species of land turtle" that lived on swallows and oysters. [9] Later commentators have added their own interpretations of the lexicon, often without reference to Carroll's own contextual commentary. An extended analysis of the poem and Carroll's commentary is given in the book The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner.

In January 1868, Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan asking "Have you any means, or can you find any, for printing a page or two of the next volume of Alice in reverse". This may suggest that Carroll was wanting to print the whole poem in mirror writing. Macmillian responded that it would cost a deal more to do, and this may have dissuaded him. [9]

In an author's note on Through the Looking-Glass dated Christmas 1896, Carroll wrote: "The new words, in the poem Jabberwocky, have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation: so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce 'slithy' as if it were the two words, 'sly, thee': make the 'g' hard in 'gyre' and 'gimble': and pronounce 'rath' to rhyme with 'bath.' " [10] In the Preface to The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll wrote: "[Let] me take this opportunity of answering a question that has often been asked me, how to pronounce "slithy toves." The "i" in "slithy" is long, as in "writhe"; and "toves" is pronounced so as to rhyme with "groves." Again, the first "o" in "borogoves" is pronounced like the "o" in "borrow." I have heard people try to give it the sound of the "o" in "worry." Such is Human Perversity."[11]

Possible interpretations of words

  • Bandersnatch: A swift moving creature with snapping jaws, capable of extending its neck. [11] A 'bander' was also an archaic word for a 'leader', suggesting that a 'bandersnatch' might be an animal that hunts the leader of a group. [9]
  • Beamish: Radiantly beaming, happy, cheerful. Although Carroll may have believed he had coined this word, it is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1530.[12]
  • Borogove: Following the poem Humpty Dumpty says " 'borogove' is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round, something like a live mop." In explanatory book notes Carroll describes it further as "an extinct kind of Parrot. They had no wings, beaks turned up, made their nests under sun-dials and lived on veal." [9] In Hunting of the Snark, Carroll says that the initial syllable of borogove is pronounced as in borrow rather than as in worry.[8] [11]
  • Brillig Following the poem, the character of Humpty Dumpty comments: " 'Brillig' means four o'clock in the afternoon, the time when you begin broiling things for dinner." [8] According to Mischmasch, it is derived from the verb to bryl or broil.
  • Burbled. In a letter of December 1877 Carroll notes that 'burble' could be a mixture of the three verbs 'bleat', 'murmer', and 'warble', although he didn't remember creating it.[12] [13]
  • Chortled: "Combination of chuckle' and 'snort' (OED)
  • Frabjous: Possibly a blend of fair, fabulous, and joyous. Definition from Oxford English Dictionary, credited to Lewis Carroll.
  • Frumious: Combination of "fuming" and "furious". In Hunting of the Snark Carroll comments: "[T]ake the two words 'fuming' and 'furious'. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards 'fuming', you will say 'fuming-furious'; if they turn, by even a hair's breadth, towards 'furious', you will say 'furious-fuming'; but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say 'fruminous'. " [11]
  • Galumphing: Perhaps used in the poem a blend of 'gallop' and 'triumphant'. [12] Used later by Kipling, and cited by Webster as "To move with a clumsy and heavy tread" [14]
  • Gimble:"To make holes as does a gimlet." [8]
  • Gyre: "To 'gyre' is to go round and round like a gyroscope." [8] Gyre is entered in the OED from 1420, meaning a circular or spiral motion or form; especially a giant circular oceanic surface current. However, Carroll also wrote in Mischmasch that it meant to scratch like a dog.[9] The g is pronounced like the /g/ in gold, not like gem.[15]
  • Jabberwocky: When a class in the Girls’ Latin School in Boston asked Carroll’s permission to name their school magazine The Jabberwock, he replied: "The Anglo-Saxon word ‘wocer’ or ‘wocor’ signifies ‘offspring’ or ‘fruit’. Taking ‘jabber’ in its ordinary acceptation of ‘excited and voluble discussion,’ " [9]
  • Jubjub bird: 'A desperate bird that lives in perpetual passion', according to the Butcher in Carroll's later poem The Hunting of the Snark.[11] 'Jub' is an ancient word for a jerkin or a dialect word for the trot of a horse (OED). It might make reference to the call of the bird resembling the sound "jub, jub". [9]
  • Manxome: Possibly 'fearsome'; A portmanteau of "manly" and "buxom", the latter relating to men for most of its history; or relating to Manx people.
  • Mimsy: " 'Mimsy' is 'flimsy and miserable' ". [8]
  • Mome rath: Humpty Dumpty says following the poem: "A 'rath' is a sort of green pig: but 'mome" I'm not certain about. I think it's short for 'from home', meaning that they'd lost their way". [8] Carroll's notes for the original in Mischmasch state: "a species of Badger [which] had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag [and] lived chiefly on cheese” [9] Explanatory book notes comment that 'Mome' means to seem 'grave' and a 'Rath': is "a species of land turtle. Head erect, mouth like a shark, the front fore, legs curved out so that the animal walked on its knees, smooth green body, lived on swallows and oysters." [9]
  • Outgrabe: Humpty says " 'outgribing' is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle". [8] Carroll's book appendices suggest it is the past tense of the verb to 'outgribe', connected with the old verb to 'grike' or 'shrike', which derived 'shriek' and 'creak' and hence 'squeak'. [9]
  • Slithy: Humpty Dumpty says: " 'Slithy' means 'lithe and slimy'. 'Lithe' is the same as 'active'. You see it's like a portmanteau, there are two meanings packed up into one word." [8] The original in MischMasch notes that 'slithy' means "smooth and active" [9]The i is long, as in writhe.
  • Tove: Humpty Dumpty says " 'Toves' are something like badgers, they're something like lizards, and they're something like corkscrews. [...] Also they make their nests under sun-dials, also they live on cheese." [8] Pronounced so as to rhyme with groves. [11] They "gyre and gimble," i.e. rotate and bore.
  • Tulgey: Carroll himself said he could give no source for Tulgey. Could be taken to mean thick, dense, dark.
  • Uffish: Carroll noted "It seemed to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish".[12] [13]
  • Vorpal: Carroll said he could not explain this word, though it has been noted that it can be formed by taking letters alternately from "verbal" and "gospel".[16]
  • Wabe: The characters in the poem suggest it means "The grass plot around a sundial", called a 'wa-be' because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it". [8] In the original MischMasch text, Carroll states a 'wabe' is "the side of a hill (from its being soaked by rain)". [9]


Although the poem contains many nonsensical words, it holds English syntax and poetic forms are observed, such as the quatrain verses, the general abab rhyme scheme, and the iambic meter.[17]

Parsons describes the work's "logical non-sense" as a "semiotic catastrophe", since the words create a discernible narrative within the structure of the poem, but we don't accurately know what they symbolise. She argues that Humpty tries, after the recitation, to "ground" the unruly multiplicities of meaning with definitions, but he cannot succeed, as both the book and the poem are a playground for the "carnivalised aspect of language". Parsons suggests that this is mirrored in the prosody of the poem: in the tussle between the tetrameter in the first three lines of each stanza and trimeter in the last lines, such that one undercuts the other and we are left off balance, like the poem's hero. [7]

Carroll's grave playfulness has been compared with that of the poet Edward Lear, though there is no evidence that Carroll knew of his work. There are also parallels with the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the high use of soundplay, alliteration, created-language and portmanteau. Both writers were Carroll's contemporaries. [7]

Translations from English

File:Jabberwocky creatures.jpg

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

"Jabberwocky" has been translated into many languages.[18] The task of translation is more notable and difficult because the poems hold to English syntax and many of the principal words of the poem are created nonce words that had no previous meaning. Translators have generally dealt with these words by inventing words of their own. Often these are similar in spelling or sound to Carroll's words while respecting the morphology of the language to be translated into. For example in Frank L. Warrin's French translation "'Twas brillig" is translated as "Il brilgue". In cases like this, both the original and the invented words echo actual words in Carroll's lexicon, but not necessarily ones with similar meanings. Translators have also invented words which draw on root words with meanings similar to the English roots used by Carroll. For example Douglas Hofstadter noted in his essay "Translations of Jabberwocky", the word 'slithy' echoes English words including 'slimy', 'slither', 'slippery', 'lithe' and 'sly'. A French translation that uses 'lubricilleux' for 'slithy', evokes French words like 'lubrifier' (to lubricate) in order to give an impression of a meaning simliar to that of Carroll's word. In his exploration of the translation challenge, Hofstadter asks "what if a word does exist, but it is very intellectual-sounding and Latinate ('lubricilleux'), rather than earthy and Anglo-Saxon ('slithy')? Perhaps 'huilasse' would be better than 'lubricilleux'? Or does the Latin origin of the word 'lubricilleux' not make itself felt to a speaker of French in the way that it would if it were an English word ('lubricilious', perhaps)? ".[19]

Hofstadter also notes that it makes a great difference whether the poem is translated in isolation or as part of a translation of the novel. In the latter case the translator must, through Humpty Dumpty, supply explanations of the invented words. But, he suggests, "even in this pathologically difficult case of translation, there seems to be some rough equivalence obtainable, a kind of rough isomorphism, partly global, partly local, between the brains of all the readers".[19]

In 1967, D.G. Orlovskaya wrote a Russian translation of "Jabberwocky" entitled "Barmaglot" ("Бармаглот"), which became popular for its nonsensical rhymes. "Barmaglot" becomes the word for the "Jabberwock", "Brandashmyg" for "Bandersnatch" and words like "myumsiki" ("мюмзики") echo "mimsy".[20] Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese linguist, translated the poem into Chinese [21] by inventing characters to imitate the "slithy toves that gyred and gimbled in the wabe of Carroll's original".[22] Satyajit Ray, a film-maker, translated the work into Bengali [23] and concrete poet Augusto de Campos created a Brazilian Portuguese version.


According to Chesterton and Green, among others, the original purpose of "Jabberwocky" was to satirize pretentious poetry and ignorant literary critics; a work designed to show how not to write a poem, before it became the subject of pedestrian translations and explanations or incorporated into classroom learning.[24] It has also been interpreted as a parody of contemporary Oxford scholarship and specifically the story of how Benjamin Jowett, the notoriously agnostic Professor of Greek at Oxford, and Master of Balliol, came to sign the Thirty Nine Articles, as an Anglican statement of faith, to save his job.[25] The transformation of audience perception from satire to seriousness, was in a large part predicted by G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in 1932, "Poor, poor, little Alice! She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others."[26]

It is often now cited as one of the greatest non-sense poems written in the English language,[2] [3] the source for countless parodies and tributes. In most cases the writers have changed the non-sense words into words relating to the parodied subject, as in Frank Jacobs's "If Lewis Carroll Were a Hollywood Press Agent in the Thirties" in Mad for Better or Verse.[27] Other writers use the poem as a form, much like a sonnet, and create their own words for it as in "Strunklemiss" by S. K. Azoulay [28] or the poem "Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly" recited by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book which contains numerous other references and homages to Carroll's work:

Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly
by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz

Oh freddled gruntbuggly thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee my foonting turlingdromes
And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my
blurglecrucheon, see if I don’t! [29]

Some of the words that Carroll created such as "chortled" and "galumphing" have entered the English language and are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. The word "jabberwocky" itself has come to refer to non-sense language.

See also

  • Nonsense word
  • Works influenced by Alice in Wonderland


  1. 1.0 1.1 Carroll, Lewis (2010) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass pp 64-65 Createspace ltd ISBN 1-4505-7761-X
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gardner, Martin (1999). The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. Few would dispute that Jabberwocky is the greatest of all nonsense poems in English. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Rundus, Raymond J. (1967). ""O Frabjous Day!": Introducing Poetry". The English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) 56 (7): 958–963. doi:10.2307/812632.  Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  4. The North East England History Pages. Accessed 2007-07-22.
  5. Martin Gardner (2000) The Annotated Alice. New York: Norton p 154, n. 42.
  6. Prickett, Stephen (2005) Victorian Fantasy Baylor University Press p80 ISBN 1-932792-30-9
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Parsons, Marnie (1994) Touch monkeys: nonsense strategies for reading twentieth-century poetry University of Toronto Press pp 67 -73 ISBN 0-8020-2983-3
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 Carroll, Lewis (2010) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass p96 Createspace ltd ISBN 1-4505-7761-X
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 9.12 Carroll, Lewis (Author), Tenniel, John (2003) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass Penguin Classics pp328-331 ISBN 0-14-143976-9
  10. Carroll, Lewis (2005) Through the Looking Glass. Hayes Barton Press p. 4 ISBN: L99970160
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Lewis Carroll (2006) [1876]. The Annotated Hunting of the Snark. edited with notes by Martin Gardner, illustrations by Henry Holiday and others, introduction by Adam Gopnik ("Definitive Edition" ed.). W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393062422. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Carroll, Lewis (2009) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass "Explanatory notes"; Editor: Hunt, Peter. OUP Oxford. p283 ISBN 0-19-955829-9 References the Oxford English Dictionary (1530).
  13. 13.0 13.1 Lewis Carroll, Letter to Maud Standen, December 1877
  14. The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories (1991) Merriam Webster p247 ISBN 0-87779-603-3
  15. From the preface to Through the Looking-Glass.
  16. Gardner, Martin, ed. (1971) [1960]. The Annotated Alice. New York: The World Publishing Company. pp. 195–196. 
  17. Gross and McDowell (1996) Sound and form in modern poetry By p15 The University of Michigan Press ISBN 0-472-06517-3
  18. Lim, Keith. Jabberwocky Variations: Translations. Accessed 2007-10-21.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Hofstadter, Douglas R. (1980). "Translations of Jabberwocky". Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York, NY: Vintage Books. ISBN 0394745027. 
  20. Full translations of "Jabberwocky" into French and German can be found in The Annotated Alice along with a discussion of why some translation decisions were made. M. Gardner, ed., The Annotated Alice, 1960; London: Penguin 1970, p. 193f.
  21. Chao, Yuen Ren (1969). "Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (Harvard-Yenching Institute) 29: 109–130. doi:10.2307/2718830. 
  22. Gifford, Rob. "The Great Wall of the Mind." China Road. Random House. 2008. 237.
  23. Robinson, Andrew (2004) Satyajit Ray. I.B. Tauris p29
  24. Green, Roger Lancelyn (1970) The Lewis Carroll Handbook, "Jabberwocky, and other parodies" : Dawson of Pall Mall, London
  25. Prickett, Stephen (2005) Victorian Fantasy Baylor University Press p113 ISBN 1-932792-30-9
  26. Chesterton, G. K (1953) "Lewis Carroll" in A Handful of Authors, ed. Dorothy Collins, Sheed and Ward, London
  27. Jacobs, Frank (1968) Mad, for better or verse N.A.L
  28. Strunklemiss
  29. Adams, Douglas (1988) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Pocket Books p65 ISBN 0-671-74606-5

Further reading

  • Gardner, Martin (1999). The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.
  • Green, Roger Lancelyn (1970) The Lewis Carroll Handbook, "Jabberwocky, and other parodies" : Dawson of Pall Mall, London
  • Hofstadter, Douglas R. (1980). "Translations of Jabberwocky". Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York, NY: Vintage Books. ISBN 0394745027. 
  • Richards, Fran. “The Poetic Structure of Jabberwocky." Jabberwocky: The Journal of the Lewis Carroll Society. 8:1 (1978/79). 16-19.
  • Rundus, Raymond J. (1967). ""O Frabjous Day!": Introducing Poetry". The English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) 56 (7): 958–963. doi:10.2307/812632.  Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)

External links

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