'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Early in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice discovers a book in which the text of “Jabberwocky” is printed in mirror-reversed form. (The first stanza is actually printed this way in the book.) She assumes at first that it’s a foreign language, then realizes she’s reading a “Looking-glass book” and holds it up to a mirror. Later she asks Humpty-Dumpty to explain the text:
“You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,” said Alice. “Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem ‘Jabberwocky’?”
“Let’s hear it,” said Humpty Dumpty. “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.”
This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated the first verse:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“That’s enough to begin with,” Humpty Dumpty interrupted: “there are plenty of hard words there. ‘Brillig’ means four o'clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.”
“That’ll do very well,” said Alice: “and ‘slithy’?”
“Well, ‘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.”
“I see it now”, Alice remarked thoughtfully: “and what are ‘toves’?”
“Well, ‘toves’ are something like badgers—they’re something like lizards—and they’re something like corkscrews.”
“They must be very curious creatures.”
“They are that,” said Humpty Dumpty: “also they make their nests under sun-dials—also they live on cheese.”
The word “portmanteau” has since become the standard literary term for a coinage created by squashing together existing words.
[The Borogoves, Toves and the Raths, illustration by John Tenniel for the original edition of Through the Looking-Glass.]
Carroll himself later clarified in his Preface to The Hunting of the Snark:
[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.
This 1983 stage performance of the poem contains the correct pronunciations:
For more on this stanza, see the explanations for the (identical) last stanza below.
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