Lewis Carroll on borogroves, etc.

Lewis Carroll's Alice had to use a mirror to read the most famous nonsense lines in English, and so everything about ``Jabberwocky'' may be suspect. For instance, Carroll once wrote that the borogove was an extinct kind of parrot that lived on veal. It's a bit different when he has Humpty Dumpty explain it in ``Through the Looking-Glass'' (1872). ``Let's hear it,'' said Humpty Dumpty. ``I can explain all the poems that ever were invented -- and a good many that haven't been invented just yet.''

This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated the first verse: -- `` 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.''

``That's enough to begin with,'' Humpty Dumpty interrupted: ``there are plenty of hard words there. `Brillig' means four o'clock in the afternoon -- the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.''

``That'll do very well,'' said Alice: ``and `slithy'?''

``Well, `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.''

``I see it now,'' Alice remarked thoughtfully: ``and what are `toves'?''

``Well, `toves' are something like badgers -- they're something like lizards -- and they're something like corkscrews.''

``They must be very curious-looking creatures.''

``They are that,'' said Humpty Dumpty: ``also they make their nests under sundials -- also they live on cheese.''

``And what's to `gyre' and to `gimble'?''

``To `gyre' is to go round and round like a gyroscope. To `gimble' is to make holes like a gimblet.''

``And `the wabe' is the grass-plot round a sun-dial, I suppose?'' said Alice, surprised at her own ingenuity.

``Of course it is. It's called `wabe,' you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it --''

``And a long way beyond it on each side.'' Alice added.

``Exactly so. Well then, `mimsy' is `flimsy and miserable' (there's another portmanteau for you). And a `borogove' is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round -- something like a live mop.''

``And then `mome raths'?'' said Alice. ``I'm afraid I'm giving you a great deal of trouble.''

``Well, 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, you know.''

``And what does `outgrabe' mean?''

``Well, `outgribing' is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle: however, you'll hear it done, maybe -- down in the wood yonder -- and, when you've once heard it, you'll be quite content.''

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