This is Alice’s 150th birthday and she certainly doesn’t show her age. You’d never believe she’s a day over 100. Like the brainy Athena from the skull of Zeus, Alice sprang from the imagination of Lewis Carroll. While oft mistakenly considered merely children’s books, both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (shortened to Alice in Wonderland) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There (shortened to Through the Looking Glass) are not simplistic. True, they can be taken on the children’s level, where they are amusing and entertaining. Queen Victoria enjoyed Alice so much that she sent for all Lewis Carroll’s other books and was surprised to receive mathematics treatises. You see, Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was an Oxford don of mathematics. Droll, erudite wit permeated both books. Even his pen name is a reversal of the Latin translation of his first and middle names. Originally, he planned to use an anagram of them, Edgar Cuthwellis, but his publisher thankfully nixed that idea. So Charles translated his names to Carolus Ludovicus, then swapped them around and Anglicized them to Lewis Carroll. Simple, eh?
Although books have been written about why he penned Alice’s tales and what then happened, the short version is that the bachelor don took the three daughters of his friend and college dean, Henry George Liddell, out rowing on July 4th, 1862. Ten-year old Alice, the middle child, begged him to tell them a story. He spun a fanciful tale about a young girl named Alice who followed a white rabbit down a hole to Wonderland. At Alice’s urging, he put it on paper. The working title was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Fortunately, Carroll was persuaded to change it because the book might be thought to have something to do with mining, but he did give a handwritten copy with that title to Alice in 1863. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published on November 26th, 1865. While Dodgson expected to sell about 400 books, it was soon a runaway hit. It continues to have many incarnations, including ones by Disney, Depp and even a porno version. Alice’s tales have become a mainstay of children’s (and adult) fiction.
All this is nice, but so what? It doesn’t make these books of enduring quality or Mensa standing. Although Dodgson was a mathematician, there are no profound formulas or theorems of great repute in the two books. Instead, it is the way he uses the English language, the banter and brilliance, the puns and portmanteaus that stand the test of time. Consider that scrambled egghead, Humpty Dumpty, who uses “glory” to describe a “nice knock-down argument,” in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There. It sounds like nonsense, right? Yet it had to do with a linguistic debate as to whether words have an intrinsic meaning that is inbuilt and inherent or whether they can be defined or redefined at will. When Carroll wrote the books, there was a strong school of linguistic thought that words had an intrinsic meaning. Few now follow that school and the other view seems to be what we now follow. “Cool” has nothing to do with temperature, but with popular acceptance. “Sweet” doesn’t describe the sugar content of a food, but means “cool.” “Ill” doesn’t mean sick, but “cool” or “sweet.” Who knows what the newest and latest word will be tomorrow. Since traditional dictionaries cannot keep pace with this rapid “evolution,” there are even “urban dictionaries” to help you keep up on this ever-changing patois of the youth culture, since yesterday’s youth are today’s AARP. The upshot, it seems, is that Humpty was right when he said, “When I use a word, . . . it means just what I chose it to mean.” An existential etymology. Meaning of words do change over time, although that has been greatly accelerated in the last few decades. Not exactly the stuff of a children’s book.
Another bit of linguistic wit is the poem “Jabberwocky,” which I can still stumble through by memory to this day. Again, it is from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There and found by Alice in a book. It is a masterpiece of pun and portmanteau words. In fact, Carroll first coined that phrase for “two meanings packed up into one word.” A portmanteau is a small suitcase with two equal compartments (ever hear of one now?), so Carroll used it to describe two words combined into one with elements of both. Who does not understand that a motel is a motorists hotel? Or that a brunch is a combination of breakfast and lunch? Even the air many breathe has long been smog, or smoke and fog. But the list keeps growing, with Labradoodle (Labrador Retriever/poodle mix) and frappuccino (frappe/cappuccino blend) now common parlance. But grue as green and blue? Chuggers from charity and muggers, meaning people who accost you for contributions for their favorite cause? To me, chuggers were guys who downed mugs of beer quickly. But I’m obviously dated. I could go on, but there are far too many to list here. And all this came from Lewis Carroll. Consider this poem, which I quote in full because I like it and it’s my blog. Hmmm. My web log?
- “Brillig”: four o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.
- “Slithy”: lithe and slimy. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’.
- “Toves”: curious creatures that are something like badgers, something like lizards, and something like corkscrews. They make their nests under sun-dials and live on cheese.
- “To gyre”: to go round and round like a gyroscope.
- “To gimble”: to make holes like a gimblet.
- “Wabe”: the grass-plot round a sun-dial. It is called like that because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it. And a long way beyond it on each side.
- “Mimsy”: flimsy and miserable
- “Borogove”: a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round; something like a live mop.
- “Mome rath”: a ‘rath’ is a sort of green pig. Humpty Dumpty is not certain about the meaning of ‘mome’, but thinks it’s short for “from home”; meaning that they’d lost their way.
- “To outgrabe”: ‘outgribing’ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.
The question I posit is that, even without an explanation of the words, do you understand the action, the basic concept? The words bring images to mind, perhaps a little different for each reader. Vorpal sword. Manxome foe. Uffish thought. Snicker-snack. Beamish boy. You get a feeling for the intent without fully understanding the meaning. It is a masterful stroke of lexical lightheartedness.
I tend to menander (mentally wander) a bit, so I will close with another favorite of mine, the Cheshire cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He explains to Alice why he is mad.
“And how do you know that you’re mad?” “To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?” I suppose so, said Alice. “Well then,” the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”
In other words, madness (insanity, not anger) is going against expected behavior, not diminished mental capabilities. By such a standard, I am happily mad. When Alice asks him which road to take, he gives her another delightfully illogically logical answer that pretty much sums up the way many live their lives.
Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
Try explaining these concepts to an eight-year-old. Yet an eight-year-old can enjoy Alice’s adventures without worrying about deeper meanings. That is the genius of Lewis Carroll. Happy birthday, Alice. You look marvetastic.