Extracting meaning in nonsense

by hexacoto

Image credit to Wikipedia

‘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.

— Lewis Caroll, “Jabberwocky”, 1871

This is one of the most well-known nonsense poems in the English language, and yet, as Alice in Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass says

‘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’

Even though the words are nonsensical, we still get a distinct sense of their meaning. How is that achieved? What components of the words in this poem contribute to their meaning? From Wikipedia, it says “The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than “non-sense”, allowing the reader to infer meaning and therefore engage with narrative while lexical allusions swim under the surface of the poem.” What that means is that when we see the words and hear the sounds of the words, the components draw upon our existing knowledge to draw parallels to words and meaning we already know, and extrapolate the meaning onto the poem.

Thus, the frications, the hisses and lullings of the tongue bring about certain images and parallels to words we already know. A modern example would be the word:

Professor Severus Snape

from the Harry Potter books. It’s a very simply usage of the visual and audio clues as to the kind of person a character with that name might be. From “Severus,” we can break it down phonologically — the repeated sibilant ‘s’ draws upon hissing sounds, starting and ending with an ‘s’ makes the word sound harsher, and the the labio-dental ‘v’ sound draws the speaker’s mouth into an involuntary snarl in order to pronounce the ‘v’. Orthographically, “Severus” looks like the word “severe,” and the “-us” suffix lends it the gravitas of faux-Latin, adding a touch of snobbery and sombreness. Similarly, for “Snape,” phonologically, it leads with an “s” sibilant, and the “SN” consonant cluster makes the reader involuntarily sneer. Ending the word with the plosive “p,” and a released, aspirated one at that, adds to the ideas of a curt, no-nonsense character. One can plausibly imagine Severus Snape (with Alan Rickman as him, of course) saying the words “Get. Up.” with an extra hard release of the final “p” sound. Orthographically, “Snape” looks like “snake,” contains the word “snap” in it, and words that begin with “sn” have usually a slight negative connotation to it. (Snide, sneer, snap, snore, sneak, snoot, snarl, sniffle, snark)

So we’re incredibly able to draw so many allusions just from a person’s name via its sounds and its sights, now imagine extending it to the entire Jabberwocky poem. Let’s just examine the first stanza of the poem:

  1. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  2. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
  3. All mimsy were the borogoves,
  4. And the mome raths outgrabe.

And see if we can annotate it with relevant information that we know.

  1. It was brillig [N? Time of the day? ADJ? Brilliant?], and the slithy [Definitely ADJ. Slithering and lithe] toves [Definitely N, because of following line]
  2. Did gyre [V. Plural object-verb agreement (“toves gyre”). Gyroscope] and gimble [V. Gyrate and tumble? Rotating movement] in the wabe [N. Wet, plus extra wet connotations from “slithy”]
  3. All mimsy [Adj. Whimsy? Whimper? Miserable?] were the borogoves [N. Borrow-dove? A bird? Mangrove?]
  4. And the mome raths [ADJ-N, because of the following V. Home? Mope? Moan? Wrath? Rats? Moths?] outgrabe [out-grab+PAST? Gripe+PAST?]

Wikipedia compiles a possible interpretation of the words, which mine seem pretty close to.

The human mind is incredibly capable, almost desirous, of pulling meaning out of words, such that people arguing about semantics when they disagree with words used by other people seem almost silly. Previously, I have written about how the grammaticality we’re obsessed with contributes little to the understanding of meaning, and people who advocate and insist on a gold standard of grammar are quite misguided. Similarly, we see here even semantic-correctness seems secondary, if the words used have no semantic distinguishing from another, because they are not words in the lexicon in the first place, yet they contain content and semantic meaning.

Does it matter if I say, “The amalgamation of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yields water,” and “The combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yield water,”? There will be semantic purists who insist that the act of amalgamation is subtly different from a mere combination; that perhaps amalgamation is more nuanced.

Of course, I don’t deny that there are certainly words that are more nuanced than others. There is certainly a different between the words “happy,” “delighted,” “glad,” and “ecstatic” — they align differently on the superlative scale where one might construe “glad” to be the most slight and “delighted” and “ecstatic” to be on the other end. But even between these words, how is one to distinguish the semantic difference between “delighted” and “ecstatic,” where one is full of delight and the other full of ecstasy, that one is more superlative than the other other? Does ecstasy trump delight?

As such, insisting on absolutism for certain terms is imposition of one’s views on another. Splitting hairs semantically, like grammar-nazism, contributes nothing to the discussion if the intent of the speech is clear.

To end off, I’ll try my hand at “nonsense prose,” to see if I could, without using lexical words, tell a story.

“You seem morried,” Alex said, as he kriched up a klatch, and lit his smube. He took a long wheg. “Is everything milly-willy? Surely nothing fellish happened?”

“I’m afraid I’m a little tatchet,” I said, my shoulders smished, my haiths swanged.

Alex poff-poffed, for he whegged one too big. “Sorry about that. Come on, tich your bin up, kellyvale everything.”

I hished my feet, “You know what my pairrows are; they have viddied not an inch. Every burrise I wake, the same ol’ nubs, the same ol’ tracherns. I am still without work, and my time here is plivered. If I don’t get a job immish, I’m fanade I’m going to go wallyfaloo.”

“Surely it’s not that sapper,” Alex kippered, “You have your tumms around you, being snorm and glideful. Surely that clappas your situation?”

“I’m grateful for my tumms, yes,” I said, “But they can only clappas por piti. It’s been four yardas already, Alex, and the best I’ve bainaged was this mopstep.”

“I can’t movome back, Alex. That finta is unbelfortasible to me; I didn’t swarvvy thousands of loons and cross ninan lashes to come here, only to have to gallivog home. There is no syfe for me there, Alex. Although I have tumms and revelas back home, to have to be washorled by all that sikthorn and snurling pekvork will beshoy me. I’ll sooner slax myself than movome.”

“What are you going to do then?” Alex said.

“I can only prish it will be wingwag, Alex. I can only pope.”