Introduction and Text

decorated initial 'A' great deal of attention has been devoted over the past century or more to Lewis Carroll's perplexingly worded poem "Jabberwocky," from Chapter 1 of his second Alice book: Through the Looking Glass of 1872 (hereafter referred to as TTLG). Alongside the textual thrall, fans of Victorian illustration have similarly enthused over the resplendent full-page depiction of the monster (shown on the right below), from the pencil of Carroll's artist, the redoubtable John Tenniel (1820-1914), who had joined the staff of the weekly magazine Punch (Carroll's favourite) in 1850. See Chesterton (1911), Gardner (2001), Haughton (1998), Orero (2007), among numerous commentators.

Tenniel's Jabberwocky (click
on this image and the ones
below for more information).

"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 Jujub 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 has 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.

Portmanteau and Other Word Coinages

The word-coinages scattered plentifully throughout this famous heroic nonsense poem are mostly readily categorised: many as literary portmanteau words, each essentially from two formative parts; those of the difficult opening stanza and repeated at the closing stanza, as Old English, with which Carroll had some familiarity; more recently, some as psychologically sophisticated, employing fundamental-universal processes of word "condensation" - quite distinct from the various types of physical-chemical and organic chemical condensations, as also distinct from mathematical "condensations," which latter had also been employed by Carroll in his professional guise as Oxford mathematician. A language "condensation" is here defined as employing combinations of two or more mental images and/or semantic constructs, and this latter process in particular provides a basis for portmanteau word-formation. (Other categories may of course be constructed, surveyed and analysed.)

The type of creativity and originality here indicated has been the subject of experimental psychological study, particularly from the sub-field known as Divergent Thinking. Typical of such part-unconscious creativity in the later stages is the individual"s use of the more conscious-cognitive procedures, with attempts to refine and "polish" new products, via judgemental comparisons with alternative: wider and similar "things known," before acceptance of any final coinage (Dyer, 1974).

In the case of the "Jabberwocky" poem, efforts at greater clarification and understanding were immediate. Carroll himself, in a following Chapter VI of the TTLG book, introduces the character Humpty Dumpty who proceeds to challenge and instruct the puzzled Alice as to the latent hidden meanings. "Brillig," "slithy," "gyre," "gimble," "wabe," "mimsy," "outgrabe," "borogove" and "mome raths" are all subjected to the cursory and intentionally somewhat erratic Carrollian Humpty Dumpty and his brusque efforts to educate the ever curious Alice. Fast forward, and a modern IT-survey of the field is now available: www.wikipedia.jabberwocky. The multi-volume OED "On Historical Lines" should also be prospected, and will provide words and parts which were available prior to 1871: these include "burble," "beamish," "bander," "jabber," "mimsy," "mome," "slithy" and "tumtum." Later editions and other larger dictionaries will show the new coinages which already have been officially credited to Lewis Carroll, as with chortle, frabjous and galumphing; and the adjectival "tulgey" considered in detail below.

In a subsequent Preface to his The Hunting of The Snark of 1876, Carroll carefully and succinctly described what he saw as the major thought-process - or "below thought" process as post-Freudian cognitive psychologists might say - which he himself had cogently recognised as being at work in such productions as his "Jabberwocky" poem. His chosen example was "frumious" (verse 2), which he explains as having been provided by a portmanteau-type of word-splicing from the two elements "fuming" and "furious". It may be shown here as necessarily having been a little more involved, since a simple portmanteau splice would be expected to produce "fumious" and "furing," mere intermediates requiring a further more hidden/unconscious operation, thus resulting in the more intricate re-location of the letter "r." It could be argued that this latter and hypothesised mental operation is unnecessary, and the use of consciously applied cognitive "swaps" and transformations is a sufficient and more empirically parsimonious explanation. Such latter recommended procedure however could become tediously lengthy - intermediates logically thus generated would be very many, and include for example "fuumriigous" and "uurmfgsuoii" and their many cousins - safe passwords for algo-rhythms, but of low literary worth. Carroll's own view, expressed on a number of occasions, was that his ideas came to him in "random flashes of thought," or with "a transitory suddenness," and after perhaps days of apparently not consciously struggling with his required literary output (see Sylvie and Bruno, Preface. 1889).

Preface to The Hunting of the Snark

As this poem is to some extent connected with the lay of the Jabberwock, 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.

This also seems a fitting occasion to notice the other hard words in that poem. Humpty-Dumpty's theory, of two meanings packed into one word like a port- manteau, seems to me the right explanation for all.

For instance, take 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 that rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say "frumious."

Supposing that, when Pistol uttered the well-known words —

"Under which king, Bezonian? Speak or die!"

Justice Shallow had felt certain that it was either William or Richard, but had not been able to settle which, so that he could not possibly say either name before the other, can it be doubted that, rather than die, he would have gasped out "Rilchiam!" (Carroll x-xi)

Some Unresolved Jabberwocky Words

Anne Vansweevelt's 2005 version
of the Jabberwocky.

In a letter of 18th December 1877 to his then some twenty-years-old child-friend Maud Standen, Carroll clarified the term "uffish" of verse 4, and also repeated to her the above explanation for his original word-formation (Cohen, ed., 1995). However, he also confessed to having no such success in explaining the words "vorpal" (blade/sword) and "tulgey" (wood) from the same poem, a failing which has largely continued to the present. It is to these final unresolved "Jabberwocky" words that further attention is here directed.

1. "vorpal": original stanzas 3 & 5. An adjectival usage to describe the "sword" and "blade" of the young hero who goes forth to slay the monster. A search for key starter-words/ideas may usefully begin with Carroll's own end-product: deconstruction and reversal of this, from his admitted "condensation" technique, provides words such as "voracious", "rapacious," "lethal," which have both aspects of the deadly monster, and of required alphabet letters for "vorpal." Already, however, the widely-used portmanteau formula has been stretched from two to three, and a similar difficulty to that with the "r" of "frumious" above is again seen, now with "p" in "rapacious." Other starter words may of course be used, particularly if they have subjective associations linked to the poem"s word-associations. Such is the case with "vorant," adjectival, devouring. SOED E17, from Latin vorare, to devour. Carroll had Latin, from Horace, Ovid and other literary greats. Next, "paladin", from: each of the bravest knights at the court of Charlemagne; a champion. Now we have a direct splice: vor- and pal- , and the puzzle seems to be resolved with these meaningful sources which carry aspects of the "Jabberwocky" scene and characters. With a widely educated writer such as Carroll it thus seems appropriate in the case of "vorpal" to suggest him capable of making a cognitive-rational portmanteau splice, without any need of deeper unconscious processes. The divergent "leap" nevertheless may have been unforced, subconscious, at "the back of his mind," and much in the manner of his own confessed "flash of thought." Such appears to have been the case with Carroll's further example, of "Rilchiam" from "William" and "Richard," another instance of a less-than pure portmanteau splice. The latter would usually be expected to provide "Willard" and "Richiam," and an additional process is needed to account for "Richiam" - to - "Rilchiam." (see the Preface to The Hunting of The Snark above).

A further consideration with regard to the coining of "vorpal" comes from Carroll's known reading and delight in the works of Sir Walter Scott, especially and in all probability for the present purpose, the heroic novel Ivanhoe of 1819, which supplies "curtal friar"; and Scott's The Lady of The Lake of 1805, which employs "festal maiden." From Carroll's general studies of the Classics and Latin at Christ Church, Oxford, he would also have met vestal virgin. His subconscious memory during times of creative writing would thereby have been capable of supplying "curtal," "festal" and "vestal" as possible templates for his creation of the new "vorpal." Carroll's Library at his death is known to have contained "Scott's novels (48 vols.)" (Stern, 1981, Lot 380 at auction). Carroll's Diaries), 17th March 1855, also note his reading of Scott (Wakeling, ed., Vol. 1).

2. "tulgey": original stanza 4. Adjectival usage to describe the wood, with threatening aspects of the "dark, dark forests" of traditional folktales and fairytales. This has proven to be an especially resistant word-coinage, demanding the widest possible field of reference for possible starter-words. The known and here relevant interests and reading of Carroll were indeed eclectic, with Walter Scott, Old English, OS and OW[Welsh] words and texts; with ancient Episcopal [especially Durham] Church History and so on. The massive and historically arranged Oxford English Dictionary, [hereafter OED] and commentators on Carroll such as Haughton (1998), already use Scott's northern leanings in their own explanations of the well-known Carrollian "bandersnatch," obtained from "bander," a leader of northern-Scots bands or banders. That such etymological roots should appear in part from Carroll's own favourite authors should not surprise us, when considered against the wider commonality of good reading and home-libraries in Carroll's early Victorian childhood and adolescent formative-developmental phases.

Carroll's new coinage "tulgey" when deconstructed as a potential portmanteau, provides "tul" and "gey" as possible intermediates within the necessary process of psychological "condensation" and literary "portmanteau" here assumed to underpin his creative originality. Starter-words have previously proven scarce, or too modern, or excluded on other grounds: SOED gives "tularaemia," though only from E20; "tule" of Spanish origin for "tule wren" and the persuasive "tule fog" M19, though associated with California and not northern England; older words such as "tulip" and "tulipan" L16, derived from Turkish "turban", but no known association to Carroll before 1872 and the writing here in question. Similarly "tulp," M19, though from S. African-Dutch, apparently of little or no provenance in England before the High Victorian period, the "scramble for Africa" and the real and media exploits of David Livingstone (1813-1873), followed by "all England." The curious case of Livingstone - whose ceremonial return to England and the Royal Geographical Society of London, embalmed in a cask of rum, was totally ignored/shunned by Lewis Carroll, has been analysed at length elsewhere (Dyer, 2016).

Interestingly, SOED does now offer "tulgey," adjective. L19. [ORIGIN Nonsense word invented by Lewis Carroll.] Orig. of a wood: thick, dense, and dark.

"Tulchan" - appears only in the largest and unabridged dictionaries such as OED and Merriam-Webster. Defined as a stuffed calf-skin set in front of a cow which had lost her calf, but could still be thus persuaded to give milk. For his heroic novel Ivanhoe, Scott had provided an appendix of his own Annotations to such obscure and other matters in his story, a novel known to have been in Carroll's own library of an eventual some three thousand volumes (Stern, 1981). Scott's diligent researches had uncovered the "Tulchan Bishops" and similar matters, to throw light upon the affairs of the ancient Scottish barons - the "robber barons" - who during and after the sixteenth-century collapse of the power of the Catholic Church of Rome, became entitled to the revenues of the many abandoned ecclesiastical estates. Under the laws of the new Presbyterian power, Abbots were appointed to plunder such estates and pass the revenues to their baronial masters and patrons. These former "Tulchan Bishops," notes Scott, were thus wittily named after the above Tulchan. Such rare historical lore would be readily grasped and retained by enthusiastic young readers such as Carroll as the twelve-year old Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, living in the northern Rectory of Croft-on-Tees, close to the mighty Durham Cathedral and its Prince Bishops, and with other tales of John Conyers Sword - known as "Conyer's Falchion" - which slew the monstrous Sockburn Worm (Croft Rectory, 2011). All such materials point to Carroll's mental possession of "tul" as a required element for original new-word formation.

3. "bogey": Old Welsh, bwg, an evil spirit, hobgoblin: the Devil. OED, SOED. Often associated with dark woods, distant and mysterious places, or simply places where cautious parents do not wish their children to stray. The bogeyman thus becomes a staple of many an early childhood, as the present writer can personally testify. When the child-analyst Anna Freud presented her observations on London's evacuee-children during the Blitz of 1940-41, she noted that a fear of Hitler and of German bombs had "quite replaced" all other childhood fears of monsters and other terrors. The return of peace, she shrewdly predicted, would be accompanied by a return of "their bogeymen" to the minds and affairs of childhood, (Freud & Burlingham, 1942), as noted above by the present writer for his own post-1945 childhood years.

Having established grounds for the presence in Carroll's mind of the required cognitive elements, a simple portmanteau splice will now give his probable intermediates: tulchan-bogey to tulbo and changey, or alternatives tulgey and chanbo. Whilst a plodding writer might try lengthy juggling of such new coinages as "tulbo wood," "changey wood," "tulgey wood" and "chanbo wood," Lewis Carroll, by his own admission, arrived in a single "flash of thought" at the now famous word, with the desired terrifying and darkly descriptive nuances, where his young hero could encounter the monstrous Jabberwock.

A number of lesser-known condensations and word-constructions by Carroll, from his later and somewhat ignored Sylvie and Bruno children's fairytale saga, have also recently been deconstructed, annotated and indexed,(Carroll, 1889 & 1893; Dyer, 2015 & 2016).

"O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! - original stanza 6. Whilst previous interpreters of Lewis Carroll's creative semantics have studied isolated words/single words in isolation, the present recommendation is that this final phrase awaiting deconstruction and explanation should be considered as a whole. Whereas previously (Gardner(1975)2001, Haughton,1998) attention was directed to such distant dictionary "matches" as "Callooh = an Arctic Duck", the present view sees the whole phrase as a single entity - a joyful, victorious and celebratory cry of exultation (as noted but not acted upon by the above two earlier annotators). The exultation is in fact a characteristic "Carrollian Crescendo," present both in the early Alice books, and also in Carroll's final children's fairytale (Dyer, 2016; see index: Nonsense crescendo).


With the present integral-phrasal approach, searches for key starter-words become easier and more fruitful, as all may be found in the same or similar sources. Particular attention is drawn to popular Victorian Period words from the increasing cultural-linguistic penetration by Anglo-Indian sources, from the then still distant, mysterious and politico-economically important sub-continent of British India: the Raj, the "Jewel in the Crown" of all educated and attentive England.

Scott's "grandly Imperial" Foreign Office.

India - as early as 1861, following the British Crown's new ascendancy over the once powerful East India Company and its affairs after the latter's calamitous role in the notorious Indian Mutiny, 1857-58, work had begun in Central London on the grandly Imperial new "headquarters for the British Empire" by the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). The new site would include the India Office, the Foreign and Colonial Offices (Morris, 1968, Vol. II: 218). In the decade or so surrounding Carroll's completed Jabberwocky poem, his early interests in British India may be seen in the relevant volumes of his published Letters (Cohen I: 293) and Diaries (Wakeling 4: 24) for example, and included Calcutta, exotic topics such as the Vishnu religion, and the popular Indian shawls, which actually blow about with the busy Alice in TTLG. Carroll had relations back home from India, such as the Poole family cousins, and he made friends of others, such as the Standen family, who sent their daughters back to England for their education.

Anglo-Indian linguistic penetration had begun much earlier, c.1750s-1850s, with the arrival of Assam and Darjeeling teas, and familiarity with such novelties as bungalows and verandahs; rupees, suttee and thuggee; thugs, curry, bangles; the "Hindoo" religion and much more - some 300 imported words by the 1880s-90s (Yule, 1903). Much of England knew of Calcutta and its Hooghly River, tributary of "the golden Ganges"; of Calicut the port, and calico-cotton imports; of the Raj and its riches and the great festive Durbars held at Delhi. Particular attention is here drawn to the semantic similarities between Carroll's new coinage, and the Indian names Calcutta and Hooghly. See below for a list of Anglo-Indian terms and expressions extensively used by Charles Dickens throughout his lifetime as an author. Carroll read Dickens from at least his days as a pupil at Rugby School - David Copperfield for instance - and Carroll's Library was known to have contained many copies and editions of Dickens (Stern, 1981).

Charles Dickens and his Anglo-Indian Usages

[Mouse over the titles for links.]

  • 1841. The Old Curiosity Shop. Ch.4: "East Indiamen"
  • 1843. Martin Chuzzlewit. Ch.27: "Anglo-Bengalee ... Life Assurance."
  • 1848. Dombey and Sons. Ch.44: "Indian widow" [suttee]
  • 1850. David Copperfield. Ch.1: "paid off" to India; "wild tales ... baboon, Baboo and Begum"
  • 1853. Bleak House. Ch.45: "Indiaman"; "native Hindoo chair", "India"
  • 1854. Hard Times. Ch.11: "India [Pale] ale"
  • 1857. Little Dorrit. Ch.1: "Hindoos ... spice islands of the Indian Ocean"
  • 1861. Great Expectations. "Mo-gul" [Mogul was also the epithet of Dickens for his friend and biographer John Forster (1812-1876]
  • 1865. Our Mutual Friend. Bk.I, Ch.VII: "Hindoo baby"; "cashmere [Kashmir] shawls"; "Golconda diamonds" [Hyderabad]
  • 1870. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. "Lascar sailor from Bombay"
  • Individual (Possible) Indianisms

    1. "frabjous": - original stanza 6. Adjectival use to denote a special day, such as the Hindi Durbar excitement, transposed to the defeat of the Jabberwock. The rare English root "frab", OED dialect verb "to worry," is clearly contradictory to the overall requirement for a triumphant crescendo to the Carrollian poem. Recommended here, therefore, are "Raj-Raja" and "fabulous," giving the following by Carroll's admitted condensation method: "Oh, fabulous Raja day! O frabulous day! Oh frajulous day! O frabjous day!" Other intermediates - and end-results - are of course possible, though apparently not for Carroll.

    2. "Callooh! Callay!": Carroll's above-detailed knowledge of Anglo-Indian expressions would have readily provided him with key starter-words such as Calcutta and Hooghly - together with more obvious English words such as "Hoorah" and "Hooray." Among many possible intermediates would then appear: "In Calcutta, Hooghly, Hooray! Oh, fabulous Raja day! Calcutta, Calhooghly! Calhay! Calhooh! Callay! Callooh! Callay! O frabulous Raj day!" Followed by the final touches, to give - "O, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"

    Other intermediates are of course possible. Without Carroll's own associations to the material, however, no definitive conclusions are tenable. However, some of his known cultural-linguistic associations have been plausibly inferred; credible and proven psychological mechanisms of divergent-thinking and creative word-condensation are employed in step-wise fashion, and the possibility remains open for Carroll's own preferred mechanism/explanation of "flashes of thought" with little or no perceived cognitive-symbolic-semantic intermediate. In Carroll's own model of the "perfectly balanced mind," as also in the classic Freudian unconscious-preconscious and conscious-dynamic theory of mind, the origins of many creative-original episodes may, it is suggested, now receive a fuller and more illuminated description and explanation.


    Carroll, Lewis. Alice"s Adventures in Wonderland. [AAIW]. London: Macmillan, 1865.

    _____. The Hunting of The Snark. London: Macmillan, 1876.

    _____. Through The Looking-Glass. [TTLG]. London: Macmillan, 1872.

    Chesterton, G.K. A Defence of Nonsense. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1911.

    Cohen, M. N. and Green, R.L. (eds.) The Letters of Lewis Carroll. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1979.

    Croft Rectory, 2011.

    Dyer, R. Scoring Procedures and the Effects of Some Variables on Divergent-Thinking Tests. M. Phil. Thesis. University of Leeds. 1974.

    _____. Sylvie and Bruno, with Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: An Annotated Scholar's Edition. Leicester: Matador, 2015.

    _____. Lady Muriel. The Victorian Romance of Lewis Carroll: Annotated Scholar's Edition. Leicester: Matador, 2016.

    Freud, A. and D. Burlingham. "Young Children in Wartime: a year's work in a residential war nursery." In The Writings of Anna Freud, Vol. III. London: Hogarth Press, 1982. Also: New York: International Univ. Press; Munich: Kindler Verlag

    Gardner, Martin.The Definitive Annotated Alice. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.

    Haughton, H. Alice"s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

    Morris, Jan. The Pax Britannica Trilogy. 3 vols. London: Faber, 1968.

    OED. Oxford English Dictionary. 12 vols. Oxford: O.U.P., 1933.

    Orero, P. The Problem of Translating "Jabberwocky". The Nonsense Literature of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.

    Scott, Walter. . Ivanhoe. The English Library. Harmondsworth: England, 1984.

    SOED. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 2 vols. Oxford: O.U.P., 2007.

    Stern, J. Lewis Carroll's Library. Lewis Carroll Society of North America, 1981.

    Wakeling, E.(ed.) Lewis Carroll's Diaries. The Private Journals of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. 10 vols. The Lewis Carroll Society UK. 1993-2007.

    Yule, Henry.Hobson-Jobson. A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases. London: Murray, 1903.

    Created 4 March 2021