Glossing the Jabberwocky

Glossing the Jabberwocky

Original Form of The Jabberwocky

As a young man, Lewis Carroll wrote, illustrated, and privately published "periodicals" to amuse his younger siblings, among these was one called Misch-Masch. In the 1855 issue of Misch-Masch, there was a poetic fragment that was, according to the heading, a "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." It read:

Carroll offered meanings for each of the "ancient" words of the stanza, and then rendered the entire fragment into modern English. I list Carroll's glosses in the table below. Carroll's "translation" read:

Hence the literal English of the passage is: 'It was evening, and the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side; all unhappy were the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out.'

There were probably sundials on the top of the hill, and the 'borogoves' were afraid that their nests would be undermined. The hill was probably full of the nests of 'raths', which ran out, squeaking with fear, on hearing the 'toves' scratching outside. This is an obscure, but yet deeply-affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.

When the longer version of the poem appeared in Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty provided glosses on the words Alice found obscure. In the table below are listed in the left column, Carroll's original glosses from Misch-Masch , and in the right-hand column, Humpty Dumpty's explications.

WordCarroll's Explanation Humpty Dumpty's Explanation
brillig Bryllyg (derived from the verb to bryl or broil). The time of broiling dinner, i.e., the close of the afternoon. Four o'clock in the afternoon -- the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.
slithy Slythy (compounded of slimy and lithe). Smooth and active.Lithe and slimy. Lithe is the same as 'active.' ... It's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word.
tove Tove, a species of badger. They had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag; lived chiefly on cheese. "Toves" should be pronounced to rhyme with "groves".Something like badgers -- they're something like lizards -- and they are something like corkscrews. ... They make their nests under sundials -- also they live on cheese.
gyre Gyre, verb (derived from gyaour or giaour, 'a dog'). To scratch like a dog. To go round and round like a gyroscope.
gimbleGymble (whence gimblet). To screw out holes in anything.To make holes like a gimlet.
wabe Wabe (derived from the verb to swab or soak). The side of a hill (from its being soaked by the rain.) The grass plot round a sundial ... because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it ... and a long way beyond it on each side. (Humpty Dumpty's explanation was made with some "insights" from Alice.)
mimsy Mimsy (whence mimserable and miserable.) Unhappy. Flimsy and miserable.
borogoves Borogove'o'. An extinct kind of parrot. They had no wings, beaks turned up, and made their nests under sundails; lived on veal.

The first 'o' in 'borogoves' is pronounced like the 'o' in 'worry'. The word is commonly mispronounced as "borogroves". . . and this misspelling even appears in some American editions of the book.

A thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round -- something like a live mop.
I'm not certain about mome. I think it's short for 'from home' -- meaning that they'd lost their way.
A rath is a sort of green pig.
Outgribing is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.

Back to the Poem --
Geh Schnell zum The Jabberwocky in German!