Jabberwocky Analysis

  • Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" is a masterful celebration of linguistic invention. Carroll uses neologisms, portmanteaus, and nonsense words to create a vibrant, original work that has been captivating readers ever since it was first published in 1871.
  • The first stanza of "Jabberwocky" was published separately from the rest of the poem. In that first version, Lewis Carroll included footnotes with the etymologies of obscure and invented words, like "brillig" (the time of day when people begin broiling and grilling food for dinner). Carroll cut the footnotes when the poem was published as a whole.
  • Carroll alludes to "Jabberwocky" in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Humpty Dumpty explains that "toves" are "something like badgers" and then suggests that the words Carroll invented are in fact portmanteaus (e.g. "slimy" and "lithe" become "slithy").


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The original version of the first stanza is a humorous pastiche of scholarly versions of Old English poems such as Beowulf (sixth century). Carroll’s notes are an exercise in etymological slapstick, according to which “bryllyg” is derived from the verb “to bryl or broil” and thus refers to the time of broiling dinner, or the late afternoon. “Slythy” is a compound of slimy and lithe, meaning “smooth and active”; “tove” is a species of badger with horns like a stag, which lived chiefly on cheese. “Gyre” is derived from “giaour”—here said to mean “dog,” although it actually means “infidel” and had acquired more sinister implications by way of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s poem “The Giaour”—and means “to scratch like a dog.”

“Gymble” means “to screw holes” and is the alleged origin of “gimblet” (gimlet); “wabe” is derived from the verb “to swab or soak” and refers, by casually mysterious means, to the side of a hill; “mimsy” means unhappy, and thus provides the root, via “mimserable,” of “miserable.” “Borogove” is an extinct species of parrot, which was wingless, possessed of an upturned beak, nested under sundials and lived on veal; “mome”—from which evolved “solemome,” “solemone,” and ultimately “solemn”—means “grave.” “Rath” is a species of land turtle that had a mouth like a shark, walked on its knees, and lived on swallows and oysters; “outgrabe,” the past tense of the verb “to outgribe,” is related to several words, including “grike,” “shrike,” “shriek,” and “creak,” and thus means “squeaked.”

Some of these meanings are retained when the version of the stanza used in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is explained in chapter 6 by Humpty Dumpty,...

(The entire section is 749 words.)