Lewis Carroll’s books have always been favorites of mine, and the older I get the more I find to love in them. I just read a book review of a new Carroll/Dodgson biography over on Slate called The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Woolf. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (whose nom de guerre was Lewis Carroll) was an Oxford mathematician by trade, and traces of his love for logic permeate his stories. You can see them in the riddling of the Tweedle twins, for instance. Additionally, Carroll’s A Tangled Tale is a series of twelve algebraic and geometric problems in the guise of a fantasy story, a sort of proto-word problem that intended to entertain as it instructed. The Slate review also informed me of the following interesting fact:
Woolf makes much of the notion that “Carroll seems to have had an obsession with the number 42.” It is everywhere in his books, the answer to strange puzzles and to the enigma of age (the Red Queen has been calculated to have been exactly 37,044 days old, the same age as the White Queen, giving a total of 74,088 days, which is 42 x 42 x 42). Woolf makes that point that here, as in so much of Carroll’s writing, he resorts to numerical patterns to impose a deeper meaning on the seeming randomness of life. But after three pages of numerical puzzling, we never learn why it was “42” that so obsessed him.
Needless to say, I’ve added this book to my wish list and it’s gone right to the top. Dodgson may have been a logician, but logic is a close cousin of language. Carroll, then, enjoyed word play as much as Dodgson loved numbers. Linguistics 101 text books always take examples from the Alice books because they provide a plethora of simple object lessons.
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe
we know that gyre and gimble are verbs, even though they are utter nonsense. Likewise, we know that mimsy is an adjective and borogroves is a noun. How? Because we recognize the linguistic logic underlying the nonsense. Carroll was no doubt well aware of this.
Carroll also made a few lexical contributions to the English language, words people use on a regular basis, through novel blends. Carroll coined chortle, blended from chuckle and snort. Ditto snark from snake and shark, which has since taken on the much more common adjectival form, snarky.
And then there are the lines upon lines of dialogue which revel in linguistic play. Carroll dabbles in several areas of linguistics to the delight of readers. I’ll end this post with a few choice selections:
On semantics: replying to Alice’s “I’ve had nothing yet, so I can’t take more,” the Hatter replies, “you mean you can’t take less; it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
March Hare: …Then you should say what you mean.
Alice: I do; at least – at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.
Hatter: Not the same thing a bit! Why, you might just as well say that, ‘I see what I eat’ is the same as ‘I eat what I see’!
March Hare: You might just as well say, that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!
The Dormouse: You might just as well say, that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!
On pragmatics: “`Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'”
On specificity: “`I quite agree with you,’ said the Duchess; `and the moral of that is–Be what you would seem to be–or if you’d like it put more simply–Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'”
And that about sums it up. Yes, I do so love Lewis Carroll. PS: I’m really not looking forward to the new Burton/Depp debacle.