(featured image via the 1977 Jabberwocky film poster)

To view more poems I have examined, click HERE.


by Lewis Carroll

’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 Jubjub 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 hast 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.


Jabberwocky is a nonsense poem about a young man’s effort to slay a monster called the Jabberwocky.

The poem is divided into seven four-line stanzas (quatrains), with each stanza being written almost entirely in iambic tetrameter and having an ABAB rhyme scheme.

The first stanza is written using (mostly) silly and made-up words, though with the effect of creating a tone that sounds vaguely Old English. The middle five stanzas tell more clearly the story of the search for, and destruction of, the Jabberwock. The last stanza returns the reader to the nonsense of the first stanza.

Some of the nonsense can be explained by the poem’s setting – Carroll’s fictional story, “Through the Looking Glass.” Interestingly, though, the poem was published in 1855, while the story was not published until 1871. The poem is intended to stand on its own. For those who are interested, there is entirely too much information regarding the interpretation of this words, via wiki:

Many of the words in the poem are playful nonce words of Carroll’s own invention, without intended explicit meaning. When Alice has finished reading the poem she gives her impressions:

“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”

This may reflect Carroll’s intention for his readership; the poem is, after all, part of a dream. In later writings he discussed some of his lexicon, commenting that he did not know the specific meanings or sources of some of the words; the linguistic ambiguity and uncertainty throughout both the book and the poem may largely be the point.

In Through the Looking-Glass, the character of Humpty Dumpty, in response to Alice’s request, explains to her the non-sense words from the first stanza of the poem, but Carroll’s personal commentary on several of the words differ from Humpty Dumpty’s. For example, following the poem, a “rath” is described by Humpty Dumpty as “a sort of green pig”. Carroll’s notes for the original in Mischmasch suggest a “rath” is “a species of Badger” that “lived chiefly on cheese” and had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag. The appendices to certain Looking Glass editions state that the creature is “a species of land turtle” that lived on swallows and oysters. Later critics added their own interpretations of the lexicon, often without reference to Carroll’s own contextual commentary. An extended analysis of the poem and Carroll’s commentary is given in the book The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner.

In 1868 Carroll asked his publishers, Macmillan, “Have you any means, or can you find any, for printing a page or two in the next volume of Alice in reverse?” It may be that Carroll was wanting to print the whole poem in mirror writing. Macmillan responded that it would cost a great deal more to do, and this may have dissuaded him.

In the author’s note to the Christmas 1896 edition of Through the Looking-Glass Carroll writes, “The new words, in the poem Jabberwocky, have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation, so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce ‘slithy’ as if it were the two words, ‘sly, thee’: make the ‘g’ hard in ‘gyre’ and ‘gimble’: and pronounce ‘rath’ to rhyme with ‘bath’.”

In the Preface to The Hunting of the Snark, Carroll wrote, “[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.”

Possible interpretations of words

  • Bandersnatch: A swift moving creature with snapping jaws, capable of extending its neck. A “bander” was also an archaic word for a “leader”, suggesting that a “bandersnatch” might be an animal that hunts the leader of a group.
  • Beamish: Radiantly beaming, happy, cheerful. Although Carroll may have believed he had coined this word, usage in 1530 is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Borogove: Following the poem Humpty Dumpty says: “‘borogove’ is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round, something like a live mop.” In Mischmasch borogoves are described differently: “An extinct kind of Parrot. They had no wings, beaks turned up, and made their nests under sun-dials: lived on veal.” In Hunting of the Snark, Carroll says that the initial syllable of borogove is pronounced as in borrow rather than as in worry.
  • Brillig: Following the poem, the character of Humpty Dumpty comments: “‘Brillig’ means four o’clock in the afternoon, the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.” According to Mischmasch, it is derived from the verb to bryl or broil.
  • Burbled: In a letter of December 1877, Carroll notes that “burble” could be a mixture of the three verbs ‘bleat’, ‘murmur’, and ‘warble’, although he did not remember creating it.
  • Chortled: “Combination of ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’.” (OED)
  • Frabjous: Possibly a blend of “fair”, “fabulous”, and “joyous”. Definition from Oxford English Dictionary, credited to Lewis Carroll.
  • Frumious: Combination of “fuming” and “furious”. In the Preface to The Hunting of the Snark Carroll comments, “[T]ake 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 the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say ‘frumious’.”
  • Galumphing: Perhaps used in the poem as a blend of “gallop” and “triumphant”. Used later by Kipling, and cited by Webster as “To move with a clumsy and heavy tread”
  • Gimble: Humpty Dumpty comments that it means: “to make holes like a gimlet.”
  • Gyre: “To ‘gyre’ is to go round and round like a gyroscope.” Gyre is entered in the OED from 1420, meaning a circular or spiral motion or form; especially a giant circular oceanic surface current. Carroll also wrote in Mischmasch that it meant to scratch like a dog. The g is pronounced like the /g/ in gold, not like gem (since this was how “gyroscope” was pronounced in Carroll’s day).
  • Jabberwock: When a class in the Girls’ Latin School in Boston asked Carroll’s permission to name their school magazine The Jabberwock, he replied: “The Anglo-Saxon word ‘wocer’ or ‘wocor’ signifies ‘offspring’ or ‘fruit’. Taking ‘jabber’ in its ordinary acceptation of ‘excited and voluble discussion’, this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited and voluble discussion’…” It is often depicted as a monster similar to a dragon. John Tenniel’s illustration depicts it with a long serpentine neck, rabbit-like teeth, spidery talons, bat-like wings and, as a humorous touch, a waistcoat. In the 2010 film version of Alice in Wonderland it is shown with large back legs, small dinosaur-like front legs, and on the ground it uses its wings as front legs like a pterosaur, and it breathes out lightning flashes rather than flame.
  • Jubjub bird: “A desperate bird that lives in perpetual passion”, according to the Butcher in Carroll’s later poem The Hunting of the Snark. ‘Jub’ is an ancient word for a jerkin or a dialect word for the trot of a horse (OED). It might make reference to the call of the bird resembling the sound “jub, jub”.
  • Manxome: Possibly ‘fearsome’; Possibly a portmanteau of “manly” and “buxom”, the latter relating to men for most of its history; or “three-legged” after the triskelion emblem of the Manx people from the Isle of Man.
  • Mimsy: Humpty Dumpty comments that “‘Mimsy’ is ‘flimsy and miserable'”.
  • Mome: Humpty Dumpty is uncertain about this one: “I think it’s short for ‘from home’, meaning that they’d lost their way, you know”. The notes in Mischmasch give a different definition of ‘grave’ (via ‘solemome’, ‘solemone’ and ‘solemn’).
  • Outgrabe: Humpty Dumpty says “‘outgribing’ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle”. Carroll’s book appendices suggest it is the past tense of the verb to ‘outgribe’, connected with the old verb to ‘grike’ or ‘shrike’, which derived ‘shriek’ and ‘creak’ and hence ‘squeak’.
  • Rath: Humpty Dumpty says following the poem: “A ‘rath’ is a sort of green pig”. Carroll’s notes for the original in Mischmasch state that a ‘Rath’ is “a species of land turtle. Head erect, mouth like a shark, the front forelegs curved out so that the animal walked on its knees, smooth green body, lived on swallows and oysters.” In the 1951 animated film adaptation of the previous book, the raths are depicted as small, multi-coloured creatures with tufty hair, round eyes, and long legs resembling pipe stems.
  • Slithy: Humpty Dumpty says: “‘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.” The original in Mischmasch notes that ‘slithy’ means “smooth and active”. The i is long, as in writhe.
  • Snicker-snack: possibly related to the large knife, the snickersnee.
  • Tove: Humpty Dumpty says “‘Toves’ are something like badgers, they’re something like lizards, and they’re something like corkscrews. … Also they make their nests under sun-dials, also they live on cheese.” Pronounced so as to rhyme with groves. They “gyre and gimble”, i.e., rotate and bore. Toves are described slightly differently in Mischmasch: “a species of Badger [which] had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag [and] lived chiefly on cheese”.
  • Tulgey: Carroll himself said he could give no source for this word. It could be taken to mean thick, dense, dark. It has been suggested that it comes from the Anglo-Cornish word tulgu, ‘darkness’, which in turn comes from Cornish tewolgow ‘darkness, gloominess’.
  • Uffish: Carroll noted, “It seemed to suggest a state of mind when the voice is gruffish, the manner roughish, and the temper huffish”.
  • Vorpal: Carroll said he could not explain this word, though it has been noted that it can be formed by taking letters alternately from “verbal” and “gospel”. It has appeared in dictionaries as meaning both ‘deadly’ and ‘extremely sharp’.
  • Wabe: The characters in the poem suggest it means “The grass plot around a sundial”, called a ‘wa-be’ because it “goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it”. In the original Mischmasch text, Carroll states a ‘wabe’ is “the side of a hill (from its being soaked by rain)”.