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  • Writer's pictureRichard Meier

How to train your Jabberwocky

John Tenniel, 1871

It was fun the other evening reading Jabberwocky to my nine year old son. And even more so when my wife came into the room and proceeded to recite by heart the poem that she had evidently learned as a child.

When I googled the poem later, I was astounded to discover that the words chortle and galumphing were neologisms invented by Carroll.

Perhaps this is common knowledge; if so, my bad. I knew the poem of course, and that it contained a number of made-up words such as frumious, vorpal and brillig. The difference between those words, however, and chortle and galumphing is that the latter have passed into the lexicon whereas the former haven’t. Why might that be?

Take frumious, for example. What does it mean? Of course, we can’t know, and can only surmise from the poem, but perhaps it means both furious and fuming (in terms of anger and foul-smelling). But maybe there isn’t a sufficient need for a word that does all that in one go?

And vorpal. You’d have thought that word might have enjoyed a renaissance during Game of Thrones. But again, perhaps we don’t have sufficient need for a word which might denote venomous, strong and terrifying all rolled into one?

Whereas we evidently do have a need for chortle, which seems to be a little bit like chuckle but just a little bit less generous - that is, someone who is chortling is probably doing so at someone or something, while someone chuckling is likely to be doing it about someone or something. So perhaps we needed that word because we didn’t have it, and it was really useful to describe something that people sometimes do.

And galumphing, with its mix of elephants and awkwardness, yes - we surely needed someone to come up with that, and it’s hard to fathom how we could have managed without it for so many millennia.

Apart from the enjoyment of this new knowledge about these new words though, what was great was seeing my son turn to his beloved copy of How to train your dragon by Cressida Cowell (a fan, I suggest, of another prolific neologist Gerard Manley Hopkins) and point out the words squeeze-blood (used for heart), moonhowler (for wolf) and - his favourite, and I’ll give you a clue: it’s something to do with noses – sniffersludge.

And while we do have words for these things already, they’re so good that I wonder if they might just catch on.

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