I have thought of an idea for a post based on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky. I copied the poem from an internet site and pasted it into Word for Mac. Immediately, I realised that some of Carroll’s nonce words were red-underlined for spelling, and others weren’t.

Red-underlined are: toves, gimble, wabe, mome, raths, outgrabe, Jabberwock, Jubjub, frumious, Bandersnatch, vorpal, manxome, Tumtum, uffish, tulgey, Callooh, Callay (17). Not red-underlined are Jabberwocky, brillig, slithy, (gyre), mimsy, borogoves, whiffling, burbled, snicker-snack, galumphing, beamish, frabjous, chortled (12 or 13). I’ve put gyre in brackets because it exists as a noun but not as a verb, as Carroll uses it in this poem.

Intriguingly, Dictionary.com records four words as predating Carroll: mome, Archaic. a fool; blockhead.), from 1545-55; origin uncertain, but that is not the sense in which Carroll uses it (Humpty Dumpty explains “I think it’s short for ‘from home’ – meaning that they’d lost their way, you know’); whiffle, veer or toss about irregularly, from 1550-60; burble, to make a bubbling sound; bubble, to speak in an excited manner; babble, from 1275-1325; and beamish, bright, cheerful, and optimistic, from 1520-30. (That is, one of the words which Pages for Mac doesn’t recognise and three of the ones it does.) It’s impossible to know if Carroll was aware of these words.

It also records the following words in more-or-less their meanings in the poem, crediting Carroll in each case: mimsy, prim, underwhelming, and ineffectual (Humpty says ‘flimsy and miserable’); frumious, fuming and furious; bandersnatch, an imaginary wild animal of fierce disposition; vorpal, deadly; manxsome, fearsome; galumph, to move along heavily and clumsily; and chortle, to chuckle gleefully. (That is, four of the words Pages for Mac doesn’t recognise and three of the ones it does.)

It also also records Jabberwocky (or Jabberwock), not as a fearsome imaginary beast, but as ‘invented, meaningless words; nonsense; gibberish’ or writing or speech containing them. Note that is spelled with a capital letter, even though the definition points to a common noun.

So of the 17 words Pages for Mac doesn’t recognise, Dictionary.com records five, and of the 12 or 13 it does, it records six or eight (depending on whether you count gyre and Jabberwocky).

Pages for Mac might recognise snicker-snack because both components are real words. Dictionary.com asked ‘Do you mean snickersnee?’. I would have thought that that was a coinage by WS Gilbert, but it actually dates from 1690-1700, ‘variant (by alliterative assimilation) of earlier stick or snee, to thrust or cut < Dutch steken to stick + snij(d)en to cut’. [Edit: by the way, neither of Pages for Mac or WordPress recognises  ‘snickersnee’.)

Google Ngrams records burble and chortle as the two words which have entered common usage. But burble has another meaning (Aeronautics. the breakdown of smooth airflow around a wing at a high angle of attack), the overall occurrence peaked in the late 1910s and the early 1940s, and the most common collocation is ‘burble point’. I am surprised that galumph doesn’t occur more, but maybe it’s spoken rather than written.

Now that I’ve copied and pasted into WordPress, I’ve found that its editing dictionary also red-underlines Jabberwocky, brillig, slithy, gyre, mimsy, borogoves, whiffling, beamish and frabjous, and recognises burbled, snicker-snack, galumphing and chortled. (It also doesn’t recognise ‘recognise’, which Pages for Mac does. On the other hand, Pages for Mac doesn’t recognise ‘realise’.)

(By the way, nonce does not mean nonsense. It means ‘coined and used only for a particular occasion’.)

[Edit 8 Nov: I tried again with the spell-checker on Word for Windows at work and, predictably, got another set of results, which I won’t list. The practical upshot is that none of these words is recognised by all three spell-checkers. Gimble, Bandersnatch, vorpal and tulgey are red-underlined by all three, Jabberwocky, brillig, gyre, wabe, mimsy, borogroves, mome. raths, outgrabe, Jubjub, frumious, manxome, Tumtum, uffish, whiffling, beamish, Callooh and Callay by two (Page and WordPress agree 12 times and WordPress and Word six times). WordPress alone red-underlines slithy and frabjous, and Word alone chortled, burbled, snicker-snack and galumphing.

What conclusion can we draw from all this? That spell-checkers are inconsistent? That none of Carroll’s nonce, nonsense words has achieved total acceptance? That I am easily distracted from writing the post I originally set out to write?]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s