February 26, 2013

Words of the Month - O Frabjous Words!

        January 27 was Lewis Carroll's birthday - or at least the birthday of his alter ego Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.  Unfortunately, I misread my note to myself and thought it was February 27, so today's installment of "Words of the Month" is dedicated (a month late) to the words he made up.  Carroll made up a lot of words, many of them familiar to readers of Alice's adventures.  Lots of people will recall hearing of brillig, slithy toves, and the bandersnatch.  But the words I'm featuring today are the ones that have moved out of Wonderland and find at least occasional usage in everyday conversation.

mimsy - (1855) blend of miserable and flimsy.  This word is on the edge of mainstream, used every once in a while, but probably only with consciousness of quoting Carroll.

vorpal - (1871) heroically powerful, used with blade or sword.  This word is a staple in those portions of the populace that have occasion to discuss heroically powerful swords, especially the D&D and fantasy role-playing community.

snicker-snack - (1871) the sound made by a vorpal blade slicing.  Useful for swashbucklers, rogues, duellists, knights in shining armor, hedge pruners, chefs, and anyone else with a sharp blade and a certain sense of verve.

snark - Lewis Carroll introduced this imaginary creature in The Hunting of the Snark in 1876.  Snarky meaning snide derives from a verb "to snort" from 1866.  The two may be unrelated, but I can't help suspecting that Carroll might have been influenced by the verb when he was coming up with nonsense for his writing, while it seems even more likely that the popularity of the adjective was enhanced by the existence of Carroll's noun.

galumph - (1872) blend of gallop and triumph.  I mentioned this one in an earlier post on made-up words.

chortle - (1871) blend of chuckle and snort.  This is probably the most mainstream of all Carroll's coinings.  Plenty of people know this word without having read Through the Looking Glass or having any idea of its origin.  That's the sign of a word having truly arrived.

portmanteau word - (1882) In addition to all the new word blends Carroll introduced, he also gave us a word for the kind of words he was making up.  His explanation was that these words have "two meanings packed up into one word" like in a suitcase.

        So why not use some of these excellent words and make today a frabjous day.  Callooh!  Callay!

[Pictures: +5 Keen Vorpal Greatsword, Magic the Gathering card designed by Greg Rava, 2007 (Image from kobold 144);
The beaver brought paper, portfolio, pens, illustration by Henry Holiday from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 1874 (Image from the University of Adelaide).]

2 comments:

  1. In "The hunting of the Snark", Lewis Carroll's portmanteau words are accompanied by Henry Holiday's portmanteau illustrations.

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  2. Thanks for pointing this out. Holiday's illustrations are very dense with all sorts of puns and references. I hadn't noticed the connection with Doré in your post. Thanks!

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