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Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

Germanistisches Institut
Abteilung Neuere Deutsche Literatur
Prof. Dr. Moritz Baßler

From Verbal to Visual Nonsense.

Case Study:
by Lewis Carroll

Adina Luncan
Matrikelnummer: 338654
Gorontalostraat 31 HS,
1095 TM, Amsterdam
0031 207736411
0031 643184214

This M.A. thesis is the result of my own independent work and investigation, except where
otherwise stated. Other sources whose meanings or form have been consulted and reproduced,
as well as quotations/ tables / sketches / drawings / images are acknowledged explicit

Ich versichere, dass ich diese Masterarbeit selbstständig verfasst habe, und andere als die
deutlich angegebenen Quellen und Hilfsmittel nicht benutzt habe. Die Stellen der Arbeit, die
anderen Werken dem Wortlaut oder dem Sinn nach entnommen sind, sowie die Zitate/
Tabellen/ Skizzen/ Zeichnungen/ bildlichen Darstellungen, sind unter Angabe der Quellen der
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Table of Contents

Introduction 4
1 Tools for analyzing literary nonsense: a semiotic and cultural approach 6
1.1 Nonsense at the level of individual linguistic signs: asemantic and 8
morphological nonsense
1.2 Nonsense at the level of multiple linguistic signs: asemantic, 23
morphological, portmanteau and semantic nonsense
1.2.1 Portmanteau Nonsense 28
1.2.2 Semantic Nonsense 31 The poetical function of language 36 Metaphorical interpretation of semantic nonsense 37

2 Jabberwocky, the poem 42

3 From verbal to visual nonsense –nonsense, narrative and the diegesis 66

3.1 Jabberwocky in film 74

4 Conclusion 86

Bibliography 88

„Nonsense structure is simply not of the same
type as the ‘sense’ structure, but it is still structure.“
Marlene Dolitsky

This thesis has started from the idea that literary nonsense doubtlessly conceals
more than mere „words or [a] language having no meaning or conveying no
intelligible ideas“1. I have been motivated by my conviction that, as with all other
texts, there is a structure to literary nonsense as well, a complex and well-concealed
one perhaps, but one which can be understood and revealed.
The first part of my thesis focuses on developing a theoretical framework based
on Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Alfred Liede’s Dichtung
als Spiel and Roland Barthes’ S/Z. This framework should provide a solid starting
point in the analysis of nonsense necessary for the rest of my thesis, particularly in
providing the case study with a clear methodology. My approach involves
differentiating between two typologies of nonsense: one on the level of individual
linguistic signs (resulting in asemantic and morphological nonsense), and the other on
the level of multiple linguistic signs and their interaction (resulting in asemantic,
morphological, semantic and portmanteau nonsense).
In my research, going over several examples of nonsense, I often tried to
develop graphs in order to visualize the nature of these theoretical relationships. In the
thesis I will provide a graph for each of the suggested levels of nonsense analysis,
listing several examples of nonsense in the order in which they fit my classification
and systematization according to their semiotic differences. Etienne Souriau’s article,
“Sur l’esthétique des mots et des langages forgés”, published in the Revue d’esthétique
in 1965, has been of great help in my search for samples of different types of
nonsense, and I have kept the terms that had been coined by him whenever that was
possible. His article as well as Flaminia Robu’s book, Lewis Carroll - Jabberwocky -
un celebru Poem în 70 de limbi care nu există (Jabberwocky – A Famous Poem in 70
Inexistent Languages), have inspired me to keep an eye on the effect on the ‘whole’ of
language, not merely on its minute ‘parts’ of signifier and signified. Their attention
towards the resemblance between invented and existing languages became a useful
addition to the semiotic criteria of closely observing the signifier and signified I had
started out with.

1 “nonsense”, Merriam-Webster Online.

I next turn to analyzing Lewis Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky, based on the
theory developed in the first chapter. In order to fulfill this aim I include a long table
of the nonsense words and their various possible associations and meanings. Two
studies prove very helpful in my endeavor, Trabasso and Soh study, "Using Think-
Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and Responses to Narratives",
particularly the part focusing on readers’ understanding of Jabberwocky, and Marlene
Dolitsky’s study investigating the creation of meaning in the case of Jabberwocky,
described in Under the tumtum tree: from nonsense to sense, a study in non-automatic
comprehension. I also devote generous space to looking at the poem’s context, its
interpretation as a possible parody of heroic ballads, and an analysis of its rhyme
scheme, meter and rhetorical terms.
The last part of my thesis explores the possibility of applying my theory of
literary nonsense to the analysis of visual nonsense, in particular in film.
Since the medium of film operates with more types of signs than merely linguistic, the
framework I develop in the first chapter cannot be considered completely appropriate.
Therefore, I focus on what both literary text and film have in common, namely
narrative and the creation of a diegesis, a spatio-temporal universe. This part also
includes a visual illustration of my findings regarding the relationship between
nonsense, diegesis and narrative. In the end I embark upon an analysis of two films
made after Carroll’s poem, one by Jan Švankmajer and the other by Terry Gilliam,
with the focus kept on their narrative and diegestic aspects.

1. Tools for analyzing literary nonsense: a semiotic and cultural approach

Most definitions of nonsense make no clear structural distinctions based on semiotic

differentiations between different types of nonsense2. A source that proved to be most useful
in my search for tools in analyzing nonsense was Alfred Liede’s book Dichtung als Spiel
(Literature as Game), published in 1963. Liede himself based his analysis on Walter
Blumenfeld’s previous work. In Sinn und Unsinn, published in 1933, Blumenfeld, who was a
student of Husserl, distinguished among five different types of nonsense:
“(1) semantic nonsense (the absence of the relationship of signifier to the signified
object), (2) telic nonsense (of intention/aim), (3) eidic nonsense, particularly in the
visual arts, (4) logical nonsense and (5) motivational nonsense.”

“(1) semantischen Unsinn (das Fehlen der Relation des Zeichens zum Gegenstand), (2)
telischen (Zweckunsinn), (3) eidischen (Gestaltunsinn, bes. der bildenden Kunst),
(4) logischen Unsinn, (5) Motivationsunsinn. “3

Liede adopted this classification and further claimed that only the semantic and logical
nonsense are relevant in the case of literary texts, since telic and motivational nonsense can be
manipulated by the poet at his own whim.4

2 There is presently no universally accepted definition of nonsense. I have consulted the definitions of
Peter Köhler, Elizabeth Sewell, Lisa Ede, Wim Tigges, Edmund Stratchey, Klaus Reichert, Eberhard
Kreutzer and Susan Stewart, among others.
Sewell sees nonsense as a part of an order/disorder dialectic:
„We are going to assume that Nonsense is not merely the denial of sense […] but is on the
contrary a carefully limited world, controlled and directed by reason, a construction subject to its own
laws.”(Pp. 5) “Could Nonsense be an attempt at reorganizing language, not according to the rules of
prose or poetry in the first place, but according to those of Play?”(Pp. 25) “If dialectic belongs to the
nature of play, this particular case of it, the order-disorder dialectic in the mind, may be the defining
characteristic of the game of Nonsense.”(Pp. 46)
Lisa Ede refers to contrasting pairs or dichotomies in connection with nonsense:
“I would define nonsense as a self-reflexive verbal construction which functions through the
manipulation of a series of internal and external tensions. The basic dichotomies involve illusion and
reality and order and disorder, with such further contrasting pairs as fantasy and logic, imagination and
reason, the child and the adult, the individual and society, words and their linguistic relations (language
as destination and language as expression), denotation and connotation, and form and content. […] The
power and fascination of nonsense arise from the successful maintenance of these tensions, and from
the wide range of emotions, ideas and attitudes it is thus free to explore. […] The self-defined world of
nonsense does constitute a play world. Within this world, nonsense operates according to its unique
rules of order and logic.” (Pp. 57-59)
Stewart’s text “explores the idea that making nonsense is an outcome of the use of a set of interpretive
procedures… the texts of nonsense are produced by appropriating the vertical and horizontal (or any
other) organization of categories common to common sense and traversing that organization through
procedures such as reversing or inverting them, shifting their boundaries, repeating them to infinity
and/or exhaustion, conjoining them in time, or fracturing them into their members and recombining
them according to some ‘contra-sensible’ principle. By investigating how nonsense making works
rather than what it is about, [the author has] tried to emphasize that the ‘nature’ of nonsense –
nonsense’s target and focus – is something that is ongoing and emergent in social process.” (Pp.199)
The other definitions are included in the text of my thesis.
3 „Nonsens“, Enzyklopädie des Märchens, Pp. 79.
4 Liede, Vol. I, Pp. 6.
“Der Motivationsunsinn und der telische, der Zweckunsinn, fallen für uns aus, da in dieser Beziehung
Some nonsense definitions point to Liede’s differentiation between semantic and
logical nonsense, for example those of Tigges and Köhler:
„I [Tigges] would define nonsense, then, as a genre of narrative literature which
balances a multiplicity of meaning with a simultaneous absence of meaning. This
balance is effected by playing with the rules of language, logic, prosody and
representation, or a combination of these [my emphasis].”5
Köhler considers nonsense to be comical, aimless, directed internally at the text and
diverging from empirical facts and rules of logic and language.6
Despite having named both semantic and logical nonsense as pertinent to literary texts,
Liede concerns himself seriously only with semantic nonsense at the level of individual signs,
offering, thus, little help to someone interested in the workings of logical nonsense. He
considers logical nonsense inseparable from the telic and the eidic nonsense:
“After the individual linguistic signs, we must shift our focus to greater sequences, the
nonsensical sentence and the actual nonsense poetry.
Such sequences can, of course, be built by the mere alignment of semantically absurd
signs. This happens primarily in the case of sound poetry. Admittedly, they are far
more frequently composed of alignments of semantically meaningful signs, with the
sequences themselves then being semantically or logically absurd. Logical nonsense,
telic nonsense and gestalt nonsense [….] can, however, hardly be separated from
each other. When we are facing greater sequences, the different types of nonsense
intermingle indefinitely.”

„Nach dem einzelnen Zeichen müssen wir uns nun notwendigerweise größeren
Folgen zuwenden, dem unsinnigen Satz und der eigentlichen Unsinnspoesie.
Selbstverständlich können solche Folgen einfach durch Aufreihung semantisch
unsinniger Zeichen gebildet werden. Dies geschieht vor allem bei der Lautdichtung.
Weitaus häufiger aber setzen sie sich aus semantisch sinnvollen Zeichen zusammen,
sind jedoch als Folgen selbst semantisch oder logisch unsinnig, wobei logischer,
telischer und eidischer Unsinn […] nur schwer zu trennen sind. Bei größeren Folgen
verflechten sich die Unsinnsarten ins Uferlose.“7

It is therefore not surprising that Liede chooses different criteria in order to build a
classification of nonsense. He orders the genres of nonsense poetry according to their
traditional transmission into oral or folkloric and literary, giving massive amounts of
examples. However, it is only in the first chapter of the second volume that he turns to
theorizing semiotic differentiations. Liede distinguishes between asemantic signs,
characterized by the absence of any connection between the signifier and signified, and
semantically absurd signs, which result from changing the signifiers in the process of playing

der Dichter äußert frei schalten und walten kann.“

5 Tigges, Explorations… Pp.27.
6 Köhler, Pp. 29.
7 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 32.
with natural language.8 In the following pages I would like to develop a more complete
semiotic classification of nonsense.

1.1. Nonsense at the level of individual linguistic signs: asemantic and morphological

I have somewhat changed Liede’s and Blumenfeld’s terminology, in order to avoid

ambiguity, even though this change might at first seem to produce the opposite effect. First, I
prefer to keep asemantic and semantically absurd signs in separate categories. Further, I
suggest that what Liede terms semantically-absurd signs can be better described as
morphological nonsense. Finally, I propose that Liede’s and Blumenfeld’s category of logical
nonsense be conceptualized as semantic nonsense.
The first category, that of asemantic nonsense, is composed of sequences of
asemantic signs which are characterized by the absent relationship between signifier and
signified, which is identical in our perception to a lack of the signified altogether.
An early example for asemantic nonsense (although I will later mention a much earlier
one from Rabelais) is Paul Scheerbart’s Kikakokú! (1897):
Wîso kollipánda opolôsa.
Ipasátta íh fûo.
Kikakokú proklínthe petêh.
Nikifilí mopaléxio intipáschi benakáffro -
própsa pi! própsa pi!
Jasóllu nosaréssa flîpsei.
Aukarotto passakrússar Kikakokú.
Núpsa púsch?
Kikakokú bulurú?
Futupúkke - própsa pi!
Jasóllu ... ... ...”9
The second category that I would like to propose is that of morphological nonsense.
Since Liede’s category of semantically-absurd signs is comprised by elements whose main
feature is the modification of the signifier while the signified remains the same, I believe that
a term referring to word structure and word formation—that is, the term “morphological”—
would be a more accurate descriptor.

8 I have been employing Saussure’s terms in order to describe the nature of the linguistic sign, and trust
that these do not require further explanation. For more information see Saussure’s Writings in General
Linguistics/ Grundfragen der allgemeinen Sprachwissenschaft.
9 Scheerbart, Gesammelte Werke. Vol. 1.
Here are some examples of morphological nonsense from Raymond Queneau’s Zazie
dans le métro (1959): „Douskipudonktan?” from „D’où c’est ce qui pue donc tant?” - „where is this
terrible stench coming from?“ or „Skettadittaleur?” from „Qu’est ce que t’as dit tout à l’heure?“ -
„What did you/he just say?”10
Coming to a third category of nonsense, I decided to name Liede’s and Blumenfeld’s
logical nonsense semantic nonsense, since this type distinguishes itself from the others by the
fact that the signifier-signified relationship of individual linguistic signs remains unchanged,
thus semantically meaningful, and only the relationships among multiple linguistic signs lead
to nonsense. I will continue elaborating on the description of this type of very complex
nonsense a bit further on.
These categories are clearly inspired by Liede, and the significant difference among
them is the linguistic level at which they arise. Whereas asemantic and morphological
nonsense take place at the level of individual linguistic signs, semantic nonsense arises at the
level of multiple signs, or frames. These levels and categories have helped me develop a
method of analysis which enabled me to identify and locate further types of nonsense,
particularly portmeanteau nonsense, which will be elaborated further on.
Although, the categories of nonsense propounded in this thesis are rather difficult to
find in a pure form, introducing them offers fixed and useful points or orientation when
approaching the structural analysis necessary for the close reading of nonsense texts. My
terminology described in these pages is the only one I will employ further on, unless clearly
stating otherwise. I trust that the choice of these categories will become clearer once they are
explained and exemplified further.
Let us first focus on nonsense at the level of individual linguistic signs. I have created
a graph in order to be able to easier detect the characteristics of several samples of nonsense
on this basic level. Two texts that have been extremely useful in this endeavor are Étienne
Souriau’s 1965 article in Revue d’esthétique, “Sur l’esthétique des mots et des langages
forgés”(On the aesthetics of invented words and languages), and Flaminia Robu’s book, based
on her Master’s thesis and including an anthology of Jabberwocky translations, Lewis Carroll
- Jabberwocky - un celebru Poem în 70 de limbi care nu există (Jabberwocky – A Famous
Poem in 70 Inexistent Languages).
The graph is based on the proposed distinction between asemantic and morphological
nonsense, Souriau’s attention towards invented languages, and finally, Robu’s differentiation
of relationships between invented and natural languages.

10 Souriau, Sur l’esthétique... ,Pp. 38; Robu, Pp. 28.

Invented sign not Signified is absent
sound poetry
resembling any existing Signifier is present
4 “nubstzne”

portmanteau (Carroll)
“slithy” (Carroll)

Invented sign Signified is present,

resembling existing signifier is modified
charabia (Souriau)
“kékcékça” from
“qu’est-ce que c’est
que ça?” (Souriau)

galimatias (Souriau)
“Europia” (Liede)

Existing linguistic Intact linguistic sign,

sign signified & signifier present 0 1 2 3 4

When the signified is absent, we are faced with signs aligned in sequences which I
have termed asemantic nonsense. Asemantic nonsense is best exemplified by the linguistic
signs of sound poetry. In their case the focus is set exclusively on the signifier, particularly
on the phonetic features of words, while the dimension of meaning is lacking. Due to its focus
on phonetic aspects, sound poetry is at the border between literary and musical composition.
In what follows I would like to consider some examples of sound poetry, or what the
French so beautifully call “mots vide”, void words. We can already find a case in the 16th
century, in Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel:
“Biszmarg d’algotbric nubstzne zos,

Isquebfz prusq, alborz crinqs zacbac,
Misbe dilbarlkz moorp nipp stancz bos.
Strombtz, Panrge walmap quost grufz bac.”11

The word I have highlighted is the only exception, since it can be clearly identified as
signifying the name of one of the characters—Panurge. Of course the text goes on to classify
it as an existing language, and even gives us a translation of it:
“All miseries attended me, whilst I
A lover was, and had no good thereby.
Of better luck the married people tell;
Panurge is one of those, and knows it well. “12

However, when it comes to nonsense, it quickly becomes clear that intra-, extra- or
metadiegetic explanations are nearly arbitrary. It is surprising that despite recognizing the
versified form as the most important feature of the nonsense in the quoted fragment, Souriau
goes on to deny the absence of the level of signified due to the stanza’s intradiegetic
translation. By doing this, he ignores the text’s ability to have presented us with any other
translation after this type of nonsense.
Another author who enjoyed inventing languages was Jonathan Swift in his renowned
Gulliver’s Travels from 1726: “Ickpling gloffthrobb squutserumm blhiop mlashnalt zwin
tnodbalkguffh slhiophad gurdlubh asht“13 is later explained to mean „May your Celestial
Majesty outlive the sun, eleven moons and a half.“14 The first quotation also qualifies as
asemantic nonsense.
Other famous examples of sound poetry from the late 19th and early 20th century
would be Morgenstern’s Das große Lalulā (composed 1895, published 1905):
“Kroklokwafzi? Semememi!/ Seiokrontro – prafriplo:/ Bifzi, bafzi; hulalemi:/ quasti basti
bo.../ Lalu, lalu lalu lalu la! ”15, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb (1912,
published 1914): “zang-tumb-tumb-zang-zang-tuuumb tatatatatatatata
picpacpampacpacpicpampampac uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu/ ZANG-TUMB/ TUMB-
TUMB/TUUUUUM“16, Hans Arp’s te gri ro ro: “”17, Hugo Ball’s Gadji beri bimba (1915):
“gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori”18, Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate/ Original Sonata
(1922-1932) (inspired by Raoul Hausmann’s Fmsbw (1918)):

11 Rabelais, Gargantua et Pantagruel, Book 3, Pp. 114.

12 Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Complete. Book 3, Chapter XLVII.
13 Swift, Gulliver’s Travels. Pp. 232.
14 Ibid.
15 Morgenstern, Alle Galgenlieder, Pp. 31.
16 Marinetti, Zang tumb tumb.
17 Dada-Gedichte.
18 Ibid.
“Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu,
kwii Ee.
dll rrrrr beeeee bö
dll rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö, (A)
rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö wö,
beeeee bö fümms bö wö tää,
bö fümms bö wö tää zää,
fümms bö wö tää zää Uu:”
primera parte:
tema 1:
Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu,
Kwii Ee.
tema 2:
Dedesnn nn rrrrr,
Ii Ee,
mpiff tillff too,
Jüü Kaa?”19

One could argue that particular letters which appear, such as “ä”, “ö”, “ü”, are cues of
resemblance to an existing language, due to indicating that the text resembles a particular,
existing language which includes such letters in its alphabet (in this case either Estonian20 or
German). As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to find examples that fit my classification
perfectly. Therefore, I would like to stress that the divides separating the categories are fluid
and the actual texts may also be situated in-between the mentioned categories. For example,
the linguistic signs in Schwitters’ Ursonate, which are a case of asemantic nonsense, are
situated somewhere between signs resembling existing linguistic signs and sound poetry. I
would argue, however, that they are closer to sound poetry, because their visual and phonetic
similarities to any particular language are much reduced. Moreover, it cannot be established
with certainty that they belong exclusively to one language.
Souriau mentions the distinction between non-figurative language and mere sequences
of phonemes completely devoid of meaning, and deems the term of literary text to be
inapplicable to the last case:
“Mais attention. Quand il s’agit d’une suite de phonèmes totalement dénuée de sens, et
visant à n’offrir qu’une sorte d’arabesque sonore, le terme de littérature est impropre.
De telles combinaisons artistiques ne peuvent être considérées que comme une sorte
de musique concrète, s’imposant une gamme de bruits exclusivement tirés des sons du
langage articulé. Ici on sort, comme on dit, des limites de l’épure. Il n’y a plus langage
transgressif, il y a hors-langage.”21

19 Schwitters, Ursonate.
20 Ager, Simon. „Estonian.“ Omniglot – writing systems and languages of the world.
21 Souriau, Sur l’esthétique... Pp. 33-34.
Souriau gives a few examples to illustrate his idea. According to him, Richard
Hülsenbeck’s “Cadabaudohojoho o hojohojo jolodomodoho...”22 or Belge J.-J. Caillard’s
“Tinkwoti titititi orki dudiuru duid”23 would not qualify as literature. But these sequences do
not much differ from Swift’s language of Luggnagg, “Ickpling gloffthrobb squutserumm
blhiop mlashnalt zwin tnodbalkguffh slhiophad gurdlubh asht“24. Signs lacking a signified,
and not resembling any existing language, like those which often compose sound poetry,
cannot offer us much more than a “sonorous arabesque”. The signs only composed of
signifiers are, however, clearly built up of letters - the building bricks of literary texts.
Schwitters is known to have said „Nicht das Wort ist ursprunglich Material der Dichtung,
sondern die Buchstabe“25 (not the word is at the basis of poetry, but the [alphabetic] letter).
Words have too many different associations; they are not unambiguous enough, as opposed to
alphabetic letters.26 All sound poetry is at the boundary between literature and
noise/sound/music, the main characteristic still holding it in the field of literature being its use
of alphabets and its poetic features such as rhyme/assonance/consonance etc. Its extreme
location in the graph is also suggestive of its position at the border of literature and sound.
It becomes visible by means of the few mentioned examples of early 20th century
avant-garde texts that the tendency of assigning a meaningful paratext to void words, or a
meaning later on in the diegesis, gradually disappears around this time. In the case of
Scheerbart’s Monolog des verrückten Mastodons or Morgenstern’s Das große Lalula it is
merely one or a few words of the title that are still recognizable as signifying something. It
becomes more and more common to have void words standing alone, without any
clarification. I have listed the previous examples of sound poetry without giving any attention
to their historical and cultural context, and would like to mention that there are significant
differences which emerge due to these contexts, a part of which later crystallizes into literary
genres such as Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, etc. Several samples which are considered to be
part of particular genres have tangents and differing points with respect to the features I am
establishing here. These genre-typical characteristics, which differ from case to case, can
unfortunately not be disentangled in this small space, and I hope it is understood that the
resulting simplification is due to my focus on having a semiotic approach to nonsense as a
starting point in this thesis, a starting point which can be taken further in many ways.

22 Ibid., Pp. 34.

23 Ibid.
24 Swift, Gulliver’s Travels. Pp. 232.
25 Wigges, Tim. An anatomy of literary nonsense. Pp. 122. Wigges mentions taking the Schwitters
quotation from Richter (1964).
26 Wigges, Tim. An anatomy of literary nonsense. p. 122.
The next example from the graph is that of portmanteau words. A portmanteau word
is an example of an invented linguistic sign resembling existing signs, and situated at the
border between asemantic and morphological nonsense. Its meaning of two words packed up
into one was coined by Carroll in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.
Humpty Dumpty explains “slithy” to Alice by saying:
“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.”27

Carroll’s example of the word „frumious“ regarding the formation of portmanteau

words is also a typical one:
„For instance, take the two words ‘fuming’ and ‘furious.’ Make up your mind that
you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will 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.’“28

Another example however, suggests that sticking to the number of two words isn’t
necessarily compulsory, three or more being just as possible:
„If you take the three verbs ‘bleat’, ‘murmur’ and ‘warble,’ and select the bits I have
underlined, it certainly makes ‘burble’: though I am afraid I can’t distinctly remember
having made it in that way.“29

Etymologically, the meaning of „portmanteau“, traced back to 1547, was "court

official who carried a prince’s mantle," but by 1584 it already applied to the "travelling case
or bag for clothes and other necessaries", and the latter meaning carried on ever since.30
The word “portmanteau” connotes the meaning coined by Carroll in two different
ways. Portmanteau words are like “portmanteau”, in that the word’s signifier is the obvious
union of two different signifiers (the French porte, imperative of porter - „to carry“, and
manteau - „cloak“31). Portmanteau words are also like a portmanteau, meaning like a suitcase,
because a suitcase enables the packing up of several things (therefore, metaphorically, also of
meanings) into one. The word illustrates its carrollian sense using all means it possibly could.
I have previously advocated against using intradiegetic information or paratext in
analyzing nonsense words, and it would seem that, by using the example of “slithy” and
Humpty Dumpty’s explanation, I would have broken this rule, but no such thing has
happened. I did not place portmanteau words under morphological nonsense, just what

27 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass... Pp. 271.

28 Carroll, Preface to The Hunting of the Snark.
29 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 196.
30 “portmanteau”. Online Etymology Dictionary.
31 Ibid.
Humpty Dumpty’s and Carroll’s description of how these words are formed would have us
do. Instead, I have strategically placed them between morphological and asemantic nonsense,
which seems to be more accurate, based on the fact that upon first hearing words such as
“slithy” we are unsure which meaning(s), if any, the words might have, unless we are familiar
with Carroll’s or Humpty Dumpty’s explanations.
At this point it is worth pointing out Alice’s reaction to Jabberwocky:
“‘It seems very pretty […] 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 know exactly what they are!”32

Alice’s reaction suggests there is a certain ambiguity of meaning which places these
words close to asemantic nonsense. It would go too far though, to place portmanteau words
on the level of purely asemantic nonsense, since they do “seem to fill our head with ideas.”
I would like to stress the extension of Carroll’s literal definition of two words packed
up into one to the sense of several words packed up into one, due to the multiple associations
a portmanteau word generates. This aspect of phonetic and semantic associations is very
important. People have pointed out different associations of words to portmanteaus, which is
a strong indicator of multiplicity as well as of the aforementioned irresolute nature between
asemantic and morphological nonsense. One bounces between the absence of a signified and
the multiple potential meanings by means of the associations, but remains unsettled. “Brillig”,
for example, can to some bring forth the associations of “bright, brilliant”33, for Carroll it was
“broiling”34; „slithy“ „probably activates such symbols as ‘slimy’, ‘slither’, ‘slippery’, ‘lithe’
and ‘sly’, to varying extents“35; “gimble” can bring forth “nimble”36, or “gimlet”37,“wabe”
“could be water, or could be froth or could be anything”38, in Mischmasch “wabe“ is
supposedly „derived from the verb to SWAB or SOAK“39, Humpty Dumpty’s association is
“a long way before [...], and a long way behind”40.
Results of the study conducted by Trabasso and Soh, which explored how readers
understand the poem Jabberwocky, support my argument. The researchers used think-aloud
protocols which allowed them to follow the process by which 6 participants coped with

32 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass...., Pp. 197.

33 Trabasso, T., S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives." Pp. 541.
34 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 270.
35 Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach. Pp. 372.
36 Trabasso, T. , S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives." Pp. 542.
37 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
38 Trabasso, T. and S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives." Pp. 542.
39 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
40 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
nonsense at three levels of understanding: the level of word or phrase, the level of stanza or
verse (4 lines), and the level of the entire text. Their conclusion based on the results of the
first level, the level of word or phrase, is very supportive of my argument:
„In sum, when the reader is confronted with nonsense words and phrases, the primary
effort is try to construct meaning through associations of word morphemes, and to use
syntactic and narrative structure information where possible. As inferences
accumulate, the reader moves to sentence level understanding by use of predicates that
integrate and organize sentences. All six readers adopted these kinds of
understandings: morphemic and word semantic associations, syntactic and phrase
knowledge, and narrative structure throughout the entire poem as it unfolded through
words and phrases over time.“41

The different morphemic and semantic associations indicate the importance of

considering portmanteaus as several words “packed up into one”. It is impossible for
everyone to always have the same two associations for a portmanteau word, whether aware of
the author’s renowned associations reiterated time and again or not. There is clearly more
variety and ambiguity of meaning to the first stanza of Jabberwocky than is offered to us in
“The literal English of the passage is: ‘it was evening, and the smooth active badgers
were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side: all unhappy were the parrots; and the
grave turtles squeaked out.’”42

Here is another recorded version of the understanding of the poem at the level of the
first stanza, from a think-aloud protocol:
„Once upon a time, in a faraway place, near the water in a fantastic and special land
where there were strange and wonderful creatures, that’s where the story takes

There is variety and ambiguity of meaning precisely because each one of the
portmanteau words in the stanza evokes phonetic associations to several other words, not
merely to two or three other words. Portmanteaus „shoot out“ in several directions of
meaning. Hofstadter describes Jabberwocky portmanteaus as words which „do not carry
ordinary meaning, but act purely as exciters of nearby symbols.“44
Deleuze in his book on Carroll, The Logic of Sense, calls this characteristic of
portmanteau words ‘disjunctive’, and draws attention to the fact that each morphemic element

41 Trabasso, T., S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives." Pp. 542.
42 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 141.
43 Trabasso, T., S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives." Pp. 542.
44 Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach, Pp. 372.
also defines the others on the small scale of the portmanteau word itself.45 The Saussurian
characteristic of the linguistic value being set by means of a sign’s relationship to the
linguistic signs surrounding it takes place, in the case of portmanteau words, on the level of
the word itself as well (since there are several words ‘packed up’ in the one word!). This
merges nicely into my argument, since it logically entails that the first level of the variety of
associated meanings is the level of the word itself with its adjacent morphemes apparently
belonging to different words.
Here are some examples of portmanteau words from Edward Lear, collected by Eric
Partridge: „ombliferous“, „scroobious“, „borascible“(A Book of Nonsense), „mumbrian“,
„slobaciously“, „galloobious“, „catawampus“, „preliminate“(Nonsense Songs).46
I will continue the analysis of portmanteau nonsense when analyzing the level of
interaction between signs, the level of frames and codes, and when discussing Jabberwocky in
the chapter regarding the poem itself.
I would like to name a few more examples of portmanteau words before passing to the
next category of nonsense. Souriau’s examples of morphological pataquès seem to be a form
of unintentional, spontaneous portmanteaus. By pataquès, which Larousse translates as „bad or
incorrect liaison“47, Souriau refers to errors of pronunciation or articulation. The semantic
pataquès indicate semantic errors, where words are replaced by other semantically correct,
phonetically similar words, which, consequently, do not belong to this category of
portmanteau, since this only encompasses invented words. These will be discussed at the next
level, the level of interaction among linguistic signs.
The morphological pataquès are the ones I would like to stress here. Their similarity to
Carrollian portmanteaus is mentioned by Robu in her work48. The morphological pataquès are
several existing words seem to have been merged into one (of course!): „véricacité” from
„véracité”, „véridicité”, „efficacité”, „interlocuté” from „interloqué” and „électrocuté”49. Other
morphological pataquès mentioned by Souriau are invented words in which the letters of existing
initial words seem to have been ‘shuffled’: „hynoptiser“ instead of „hypnotiser“, „ayour“ instead of
„yaourt“, „aréoplane“ instead of „aéroplane“. These last examples of pataquès with shuffled letters
would rather fit under the category of galimatias, which I will also discuss shortly.
Charabia is the next category of nonsense on the graph. It is a type of morphological
nonsense, so the presence of a signified is doubtless (the individual words are always

Deleuze, Pp. 81.
46 Partridge, Pp. 175-177.
47 “Pataquès,” Larousse.
48 Robu, Pp. 15-16.
49 Souriau, Sur l’esthétique... , Pp. 23.
intelligible by speakers of the particular language the nonsense belongs to), but their signifier
has been modified.
Etymologically, a possible origin of „charabia“ is traced back to „algarabia“, the
Spanish word for the Arab dialect spoken in Spain. The word was then adopted by the French
around the beginning of the 19th century, in order to designate the grotesquely sounding
French dialect in the region of Auvergne, in the South of France, and it later started applying
to all dialects of deformed and distorted sounding French.50
According to Souriau, charabia is characterized by phonetic disguise of the initial
signifiers, and encryption by their unusual clipping and montage51. All or most phonemes of
the initial words which participate in the formation of a charabia word are kept, whether
reshuffled or not, and only the graphemes are modified. In the case of this nonsense,
therefore, the original words leading to the nonsense can be decrypted by speakers of the
language that the original words belong to52. Souriau’s definition also adds that charabia words
result from a systematic deformation of institutional language.53
We can encounter examples of charabia in Hugo’s Les misérables (1862), spoken by
Gavroche, as well as in Bourliaguet’s plays, a so called „kékcékça”54, a word derived from the
phonetic transcription of „Qu’est-ce que c’est ça?“55. An older possible example Souriau mentions is
in Beumarchais’ Le mariage de Figaro (1784): „Oh la v’la, la v’la!” derived from „Oh, la voilà, la
voilà!”56 The examples from Raymond Queneau mentioned earlier are also charabia nonsense.
We encounter a more complicated form of charabia-like nonsense in Joyce’s Finnegans
Wake. Rosa Maria Bollettieri-Bosinelli points out the following examples in an article entitled „La
traduction des langages inventés: le cas Joyce“, published in Traduire (167) in 1996: „Who ails tongue
coddeau, aspace of dumbillsilly?“ and „Come on, poor porterfull, hosiered women blown monk
sewer!“ which are, by means of phonetic similarity, decodable back into the French „Où est ton
cadeau, espèce d’imbécile?“ (Where is your present, you idiot?) and „Comment por-portez-vous
aujourd’hui, mon blond monsieur?“(How a-are you today, my blond sir?)57. Joyce takes charabia a
step further by not merely encoding the morphemic signifiers into signifiers hard to decode, but also

50 Ibid.
51 Ibid., Pp. 37:
„le camouflage par phonétisme, et le chiffrage par découpage anormal des mots.“
52 In Souriau’s terms, speaking particularly of a type of morphological nonsense called charabia: „Une
caractéristique de ce langage […] c’est une intelligibilité affirmée ou sous-entendue mais toujours
Précise,“ Sur l’esthétique... ,Pp. 38-39.
53 Souriau, Sur l’esthétique... , Pp. 37-38.
„Appelons charabias les parlers artificiels résultant d’une déformation systématique du langage
54 Ibid, Pp. 37-38.
55 Robu, Pp. 27.
56 Ibid, Pp. 37-38.
57 Ibid., Pp. 84.
encoding them into phonetically similar signifiers which exist in another language („tongue“ for „ton
ca-“, „women“ for „oui mon“, etc).
Souriau includes André Martel’s paralloïdre language from his poem entitled
Incantate under charabia. Here is a fragment of Incantate (unfortunately, I was unable to find
any translation into English):
„La matéruniverse se transfigurge. Des pointelles flusent dans les bouases. Des
perlines ruissent dans les gravalures. Les moisisses s’enlumillent de pépitadors.
Poussance des régénères en ricoche infinale danleu Tempespace.”58

I am more inclined to place this outside charabia, but still somewhere in between
galimatias and portmanteau, since according to my definition of charabia all or most
phonemes of the initial words must be present in the derived nonsense, a rule which is hardly
ever met by Martel’s example. At most words such as „matéruniverse”59 qualify as charabia, but
the explanation of the title Les Mirivis des Naturgies being derived from „Le Miroir Merveilleux du
Visage des Surgies de la Nature“60 is already some indication of the fact that Martel’s words glide in
between portmanteau and galimatias, only sometimes touching upon charabia.
Galimatias is a type of nonsense situated half way between morphological nonsense
and regular linguistic signs. In the case of galimatias the signifier only suffers slight
modifications, such as the addition of a prefix/suffix, the variation of a sound or group of
sounds, etc., which sometimes can have the modification of the part of speech as a
consequence. The signified usually remains the same or close to the signified of the initial
word the nonsense is derived from.
Liede describes several such small modifications in the third part of the first chapter,
entitled The Play with given Language (Das Spiel mit der gegebenen Sprache), in the second
volume of Dichtung als Spiel. The examples he lists which are relevant for galimatias are:
the sheer repetition („tacktacktacken“61 from „tacken“), the extension of the initial/final sound
connected to vowel variation („TitaTage“62 for „Tage“, „Publikimkamkom“63 for
„Publikum“), the extension of a vowel by other vowels („Europia“64 for „Europa“), the
insertion of a vowel in a group of consonants („veritrunken“65 instead of „vertrunken“), the
insertion of an entire group of sounds („genesigen, […], Warnigung, [...] Kalifornigen“66
instead of „genesen“, „ Warnung“, „Kalifornien“, Lear’s „tinkledy“ from „he tinkledy-

58 Souriau, Sur l’esthétique... ,Pp. 38.

59 Ibid., Pp. 38.
60 Ibid., Pp. 39.
61 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 23. Liede quotes Arno Holz’s Phantasus.
62 Ibid., Pp. 24.
63 Ibid., Pp. 24.
64 Ibid., Pp. 25.
65 Ibid.
66 Ibid., Pp. 25-26.
binkledy-winkled a bell“67(Nonsense Songs)), the doubling of a vowel and insertion of a
consonant in between („Muhuster“68 for „Muster“), the addition of a vowel in the final sound
(„Bauchu“69 instead of „Bauch“), the extension by reduplication in the medial sound
(„natiterlich“70 for „natürlich“), the shortening of a word (which Liede admits is rare -
„Lach“71 as a noun, instead of „Lachen“), sheer changes of vowels/consonants („zaruck“72
instead of „zurück“, „laputt“73 instead of „kaputt“), jesting conjugations and declinations (like
Morgenstern’s conjugation of Werwolf: „>Der Werwolf, - sprach der gute Mann,/ >Des
Weswolfs, Genitiv sodann,/ >dem Wemwolf, Dativ, wie man’s nennt,/ >Den Wenwolf, -damit
hat’s ein End [my emphasis]“74), modified gender or number („ein stilles Gast“75 - „a quiet
guest“, with „guest“ transformed from masculine into neuter in order to accentuate his
stillness), modification of the principal parts of speech („fog“ instead of „fegte“76 for the
simple past, „geschunken“ instead of „geschenkt“77 for the past participle), the transformation
into another form of speech which has not yet occurred in regular speech („codpieced“78 from
„codpiece“, „Function: noun , Etymology: Middle English codpese, from cod bag, scrotum
(from Old English codd) + pese piece, Date: 15th century; a flap or bag concealing an
opening in the front of men’s breeches especially in the 15th and 16th centuries“79 - Rabelais),
the inversion of two consecutive sounds („Virtousen“80 instead of „Virtuosen“), and the
‘shaken’ form where the initial word still remains obvious („morantisch“81 instead of
„romantisch“). An example of galimatias from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would be
„shoy“ from „He’s shoy“82, or the two modified words from „Nansense, you snorsted?“83.
Souriau only mentions galimatias in a footnote, along with an example from Rabelais:
„La court le condamne en troys verrassees de caillebottes assimentees, prelorelitantees
et guaudepisees comme est la coustume du pays, enuers ledict deffendeur, payables a
la myaout en may.[my emphasis]“84

67 Partridge, Pp. 177.

68 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 26.
69 Ibid.
70 Ibid.
71 Ibid., Pp. 27.
72 Ibid.
73 Ibid.
74 Morgenstern. Alle Galgenlieder. Pp. 91.
75 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 29.
76 Ibid., Pp. 28.
77 Ibid.
78 Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel, Complete. Book 2.Chapter XIII.
79 “codpiece”, Merriam-Webster Online.
80 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 30.
81 Ibid.
82 Joyce, Finnegans Wake.
83 Ibid., Pp. 326.
84 Rabelais, Oeuvres de F. Rabelais: Gargantua. Pantagruel. Pp. 270.
„The court, therefore, doth condemn and amerce him in three porringers of curds, well
cemented and closed together, shining like pearls, and codpieced after the fashion of
the country, to be paid unto the said defendant about the middle of August in May.[my

„The court condemns him to three tumblers of curds, seasoned, prelorelitantated, and
codpieced, as is the custom of the country, in the case of the said defendant, payable
the middle of August, in May.[my emphasis]“86

The only galimatias word from this quotation, according to my definition, would be
„guaudepissees“ or „codpieced“. „Prelorelitantees“ is also a nonsense word, but one which
seems to be a portmanteau rather than a galimatias type of nonsense. Putnam mentions
Sainean’s belief that „prelorelitantated“ is probably part of an onomatopoetic refrain.87
Etymologically, Michael Quinion mentions several theories which have been
competing at explaining the origins of the term „galimatias“, which means meaningless talk
or nonsense, like most of the terms I have used in my graph. Galimatias first appeared in
English in 1653, in Sir Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais, „A Galimatia of extravagant
conceits“. In later texts it always appears in the plural. The first recorded origin in French is
in 1580 in a text by Montaigne, in the sense of an obscene song. Most commonly it is held to
have stemmed from the Latin ballematia, which had the same meaning. All other theories
have been dismissed by experts.88
Having presented the most relevant examples of nonsense at the level of individual
signs, I would like to stress the fluidity of the borders separating the categories once again.
Another important observation would be to draw your attention toward the subjective nature
of establishing resemblance to existing linguistic signs in analyzing literary nonsense words.
Any such resemblance is strongly influenced by the historical and linguistic context.
As Jakobson points out, each linguistic unit serves as context for smaller linguistic
units and finds its own context in a more complex linguistic unit.89 For example, in the case of
a word surrounded by sound poetry with no apparent syntactic structure, we are less
encouraged to dwell upon the text and search for meaning and therefore develop associations,
than when encountering the same word in the context of other nonsense and existing words
which fit into a syntactic structure (as is the case with Jabberwocky).
With respect to the importance of historical context in the analysis of nonsense words,
one can find an interesting illustration of the mercurial characteristic of nonsense -
transforming even more rapidly if only present in the oral tradition - in Liede’s analysis of a

85 Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Complete. Book 2. Chapter XIII.

86 Rabelais, The Portable Rabelais, Pp. 298.
87 Putnam, Pp. 299.
88 Quinion, Michael. Weird Words: Galimatias.
89 Jakobson, Pp. 121.
children’s song. Liede mentions „watta watta wiawom, seht den Kranken scheiden“90 (the last
line means „see the ill man depart“), a song sung by children around the area of Kassel. He
points out it’s similarity to a song from Basel:
„Sette rep lip lo
Watte watee wirewo
Set öng trang schato
Watte watte wirewo
Schemiselle Gummiselle
Sette rep lipo.“91

Liede finally traces its possible origin back to a French children’s song:
„(Le nôtre) est plus beau,
Va-t-en, va-t-en Mirabeau.
C’est un grand château. “92

If we focus on the line „c’est un grand château“, from the French, it first turned into
„set öng trang schato“ in Basel, and by the time it reached Kassel it had been transformed into
the phonetically similar but intelligible German „seht den Kranken scheiden“. Therefore
existing linguistic signs from the French have turned into charabia words which could easily
be mistaken for portmanteau or sound poetry, and have changed again by phonetic similarity
and due to the need for meaning, into existing signs in the German language.
This short example is only touched upon here in order to illustrate the importance of
submitting nonsense to a very thorough analysis, for what appears to be deprived of any
signification might only be a point along a trace of phonetic and semantic transformations of
words bearing and exchanging signification due to cultural and historical circumstances. My
graph can be seen as a map which might help one easier recognize or follow different
nonsense words and/or phases in their development.
When looking at works as complex as James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the fluidity of the
borders in between the enlisted categories becomes obvious, as well as the fact that insisting on the
nonsense at a level of individual linguistic signs ignores several further levels at which nonsense can
be and also often is located.

90 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 19. Liede quotes Lewalter-Schläger 260.

91 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 19. Liede quotes Albert Brenner, Baslerische Kinder- und Volksreime, 55.
92 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 19. Liede interestingly mentions finding this similarity to the French song pointed out
by an unknown person who had marked it on the 1st edition (1857) of the Brenner book in the Basel
University Library.
1.2. Nonsense at the level of multiple linguistic signs: asemantic, morphological,
portmanteau and semantic nonsense

It is now time to direct our attention to a further level, the one of the interaction of
multiple linguistic signs in literary nonsense, namely the level of frames and codes. All the
types of nonsense words mentioned can merge to form types of literary nonsense. In some
instances linguistic nonsense signs appear in a recognizable syntactic structure surrounded by
either ‘real’ or nonsense words; in others, they appear on their own.
I have also made a graph for nonsense at this level in order to help with the orientation
among the different categories:

No meaning/linguistic sound poetry

Invented language not 4
signified. “Biszmarg d’algotbric nubstzne zos” (Rabelais)
resembling any existing
language ASEMANTIC
“stratz mit de uldensackt” (Chaplin)

Ambiguity but
functional syntactic 3 “The gostak distims the doshes.” (Ingraham)
charabia words
Correct individual signified
Invented/modified can be decoded. “Khvoulé voukjy fass?” after “Que voulez-vous
language resembling que je fasse?” (Robu)
existing language 2
MORPHOLOGICAL galimatias words
“„Ai ame flyinying fromm Kalifornia pto Euriope“
“Am Mann blieb der alte Fuß lange im Bild
läuten.” (Peter Bichsel)

semantic pataquès (Souriau)

„The annoying part of being in warm countries
is having to sleep with a musketeer (meaning to
say: mosquito net).“ (Souriau)

Frames merge into codes of

“This is perspiration!” from “This is a
Existing logic/conventionality and conspiracy!” (Tardieu)
opposing codes.
language. 0 “this round table is square” (Liede)
SEMANTIC 0 1 2 3 4
„perfect and abject happiness“ (Lear)

I would like to begin by pointing out the simplest cases of literary nonsense at this
level, cases which can be seen as mere sums of their parts - the nonsense words involved:

morphological nonsense resulting from charabia and galimatias, morphological nonsense
resulting from regular linguistic signs, and asemantic nonsense resulting from sound poetry.
Charabia and galimatias words sometimes merge into morphological nonsense where
the level of the interaction of the signified takes place in an analogous way to regular
language, because the modified signifiers can successfully be decoded into regular signified.
One can easily imagine examples of entire sentences composed of only galimatias words,
such as: „Ai ame flyinying fromm Kalifornia pto Euriope“ obviously meaning „I am flying
from California to Europe“. An example of morphological nonsense resulting from charabia
would be “Khvoulé voukjy fass?” from “Que voulez-vous que je fasse?”93.
There are also cases of morphological nonsense composed of existing linguistic signs.
Bichsel’s „Ein Tisch ist ein Tisch“ from his book Kindergeschichten includes several such
„Am Mann blieb der alte Fuß lange im Bild läuten, um neun stellte das Fotoalbum, der
Fuß fror auf und blätterte sich auf den Schrank, damit er nicht an die morgen

When reading the entire story it is easy to decode this sentence, because all word
substitutions are explicitly stated and parts of the decoded sentence are already mentioned at
different points in the text. The decoded sentence would be: “am Morgen blieb der alte Mann
lange im Bett liegen, um neun läutete der Wecker, der Mann stand auf und stellte sich auf
dem Teppich, damit er nicht an die Füße fror.“
Despite not being formed by words composed of modified signifiers, cases of
nonsense such as this one from Bichsel’s story are also morphological, because they allow the
decoding of traceable, existent meanings.
Galimatias words can also function in more complicated ways. Here is an example
from Joyce’s Ulysses: „He has travelled. With? Sindbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and
Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer...“95 In this case the galimatias words are easily
decodable but the text they form is very rich in associations and rather situated in between
portmanteau and morphological nonsense than under simple morphological nonsense as the
previous cases described.
Words of sound poetry usually merge into asemantic nonsense, where the level of
signified is completely absent. The words of sound poetry, due to their complete absence of
meaning, are unable to merge into any kind of frames or codes. However, I would like to
point out an additional category which can result from sound poetry words and somewhat

93 Robu, Pp. 28.

94 Bichsel, Pp. 27.
95 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 23.
differs from regular sound poetry. This category was termed ‘baragouin’ by Souriau.
Baragouin is an example of asemantic nonsense where a certain amount of morphological and
phonic resemblance to an existing language is still present, such that, when we have access to
the appropriate cultural knowledge, we can establish a similarity to an existing language, but
are left completely clueless regarding any possible signification, as is always the case with
asemantic nonsense.
The German-like nonsense spoken by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator is an
example of baragouin:
“Garbitsch: Very well. Would you sign this?
Adenoid Hynkel: Yes, I’ll... what is it?
Garbitsch: The declaration of war.
Adenoid Hynkel: Then I’ll sign it. A pen! Und stratz mit ze uldensackt. I’ll sign it!
Und stratz mit sei öldensackt, il der, der flutens... , der... , der... , und strippensackt! A
pen! I’ll sign it. Napaloni, de grosse peanut, de cheesy ravioli. There!
[my emphasis]“96

Baragouin is probably easiest to fabricate by people who do not speak the targeted
language themselves, but have been exposed to it sufficiently in order for them to be able to
imitate its phonetic and morphological characteristics. It is therefore no wonder that Chaplin
masters this type of nonsense, as a non-German speaker who is reported to have carefully
studied massive amounts of newsreels of Hitler’s speeches in order to develop a caricature of
his oratory style. Chaplin reportedly sat "for hours watching newsreels of the German
dictator, exclaiming: ‘Oh, you bastard, you!’“97 The nonsense parts were allegedly not written
down in the script by Chaplin, but improvised98 in true sound poetry performance-like style.
Etymologically, mentioning Dauzat as a source, Souriau names the Breton “bara
gwen”, white bread, as the most probable source for “baragouin”. It was initially used to
designate Breton speech. According to the anecdote, a Breton received white bread when
asking for his dark bread, and expressed his awe and admiration of the white bread in this
way. The sense has extended to all foreign sounding speech, and has the negative connotation
of a grotesquely sounding foreign language.99
Souriau’s definition differs in a few minor but significant ways. He defines baragouin
as a language lacking sense, but which is presented as belonging to an existing foreign
language: “Parlons d’abord des baragouins. Qu’on nous permette ce terme pour désigner tout
langage apparemment dépourvu de sens, mais donné comme appartenant à une langue

96 Chaplin, “The Great Dictator (1940) – Memorable Quotes.” The Internet Movie Database.
97 R. Cole, "Anglo-American Anti-fascist Film Propaganda in a Time of Neutrality: The Great Dictator,
1940". Pp. 135-152.
98 Chaplin, “The Great Dictator (1940) – Trivia.” The Internet Movie Database.
99 Ibid.
étrangère existante; - qu’on en donne un sens plausible ou invraisemblable.”100 For my
definition no knowledge of the intradiegetic context in which the linguistic sign appears is
necessary. It is not the diegetic world, or the paratextual information, but our cultural
knowledge which decisively informs us on degrees of resemblance between nonsense words
and words from existing languages. If lacking the necessary cultural knowledge to be able to
recognize the phonetic similarities, any baragouin will seem to be regular sound poetry.
As researchers, we should of course follow as many tracks as possible (including
intradiegetic and paratextual information) in order to explore the aforementioned degree of
resemblance, it would be unprofessional to simply accept the information so easily offered to
us as the correct one without further investigation. In the case of the Chaplin example, a
theorist’s task would be going further than the context of the film being a clear parody of
Hitler, and proving that “uldensackt” and “stratz” as well as the other words of sound poetry
bear similar phonetic, morphological and structural features to words from the German
language, by consulting specialized works of comparative linguistic typology. I have not
managed to find any scientific articles on language identification that would take nonsense
words into account as more than just pronunciation or spelling errors of existing words, and
would analyze resemblance of (asemantic) nonsense to existing languages, and, due to the
spatial restriction of this work (seen that it would require the space of at least another M.A.
thesis), I feel obliged to leave the task of proving that Chaplin’s “uldensackt” bears very
strong similarities to German to present or future linguists with a passion for asemantic
I would like to include some more examples of baragouin mentioned by Souriau,
admitting the possibility that placing them under baragouin could be hasty before any shadow
of a doubt concerning the possibility of these examples of asemantic nonsense actually
bearing the alleged similarities to Persian/Turkish has been eliminated.
The first example is from Aristophanes’ play, The Acharnians, where a character
called Pseudartabas says “Iartaman exarx’anapissonnai satra“101 ( or “Jartaman exarx
‘anapissonia satra“102, according to the Gutenberg edition), asemantic nonsense (a note
mentions “no doubt meaningless in all languages”103) which the text claims to be Persian for
“the Great King will send you gold”104.
Chronologically, Souriau mentions Jean de Rotrou(1609-1650) with his play La Sœur
(The Sister) from 1648, and Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The middle-class

100 Souriau, Sur l’esthétique…,Pp. 34.

101 Ibid., Pp. 34.
102 Aristophanes, The Acharnians.
103 Ibid.
104 Ibid.
gentleman) from 1670. There seems to have been a related historical event contemporary to
these cases of Turkish baragouin in French literature, namely the visit of some Turkish
officials to Versailles in 1669, officials which allegedly had not made the best impression on
Louis the XIV.105
Here is the example from Rotrou’s La Sœur, Act III, Scene IV:
“ERGASTE: Cabrisciam ogni Boraf, embusain [etc.]
HORACE: Belmen, ne sursulez
ANSELME: Eh bien, que veut-il dire?
ERGASTE: Carigar camboco maio ossasando
HORACE: Bensem, Belmen
ERGASTE: Stati cacus maincon catalaï mulai?
HORACE: Vare hec.
ERGASTE: Il dit qu’ils sont entrés dans une hôtellerie,
Où, trinquant à l’honneur de leur chère patrie...
[etc., etc. (six vers, qu’Anselme interrompt:)]
ANSELME: T’en a-t-il pu tant dire en si peu de propos ?
ERGASTE: Oui, le langage turc dit beaucoup en deux mots. [Souriau’s

And here is the Molière fragment:

“CLÉONTE: Ambousahim oqui boraf, Iordina, salamalequi.
COVIELLE: That is to say: ‘Monsieur Jourdain, may your heart be all the year like a
flowering rosebush.’ This is the way of speaking politely in those countries.
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: I am the most humble servant of His Turkish Highness.
COVIELLE: Carigar camboto oustin moraf .
CLÉONTE: Oustin yoc catamalequi basum base alla moran.
COVIELLE: He says: "Heaven gives you the strength of lions and the wisdom of
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: His Turkish Highness honors me too much, and I wish him
all sorts of good fortune.
COVIELLE: Ossa binamen sadoc babally oracaf ouram.
CLÉONTE: Bel-men.
COVIELLE: He says that you should go with him quickly to prepare yourself for the
ceremony; then you can see your daughter and conclude the marriage.
MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: So many things in two words?
COVIELLE: Yes; the Turkish language is like that, it says much in few words.”107

Molière’s play is clearly inspired by Rotrou’s - the last two lines are almost identical
in both plays. One has to wonder how much Turkish Rotrou and Molière had been exposed to,
and, had Molière for example had extensive knowledge of it, how much of that knowledge he
would have allowed to slip into the speech of Cléonte, a character who was a Frenchmen

105 Robu, Lewis Carroll - Jabberwocky, Pp. 26.

106 Souriau, Sur l’esthétique... ,Pp. 35.
107 Molière, The middle-class gentleman. Act IV. Scene IV.
disguised into a Turk. My guess would be that both authors had little such knowledge, and
these examples are plain sound poetry. This, however, requires further investigation.
It is worth mentioning that Bel-men, the term which appears in both plays, entered the
French vocabulary of that age in referring to Turkish-like nonsense in the French.108
Souriau includes some other examples of baragouin which do not fall under this
category at all, according to my definition, since they claim to belong to imaginary languages
(Tarzan’s jungle language in Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.H. Rosny’s and Kipling’s Neolithic
language, Borges’ Tlön), but the impossibility of checking whether a word from an imaginary
language bears any resemblance to a word from existing language convinces me that sound
poetry is the appropriate category for them.

1.2.1. Portmanteau Nonsense

Let us now come to the cases of portmanteau and semantic nonsense, which are the
most complex and interesting to analyze at this level of multiple linguistic signs.
The text which has proved to be extremely helpful in this task is Roland Barthes’ S/Z.
In this text Barthes elaborates on the concept of codes as interwoven structures of semiotic or
thematic meaning in a literary text, he establishes five codes and demonstrates how they
function in Honoré de Balzac’s Sarrasine. Barthes distinguishes between the following codes:
the hermeneutic code, the proairetic code or code of action, the referential or cultural, the
semantic and the symbolic code, and admits at one point that all these codes are more or less
cultural, meaning that they are all based on cultural knowledge. Barthes insists on the concept
of plurality or multiplicity of a text, and, in his famous essay, The Death of the Author, he
describes text as a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, drawn from
different cultures, blend and clash. He compares the web of codes to the interweaving of
voices in a musical score, and sees writing rather as a collage of ‘quotations’ out of an
immense cultural dictionary, than the operation of a recording, representation or depiction.
His development of the concept of codes as a complex web or interwoven network through
which the text „passes“, is an indicator of the alternative he proposes to merely focusing on
the author in the analysis of a text.
Since Barthes’ codes are complex semiotic structures of meaning at levels above the
level of individual signs, they have provided me with the ideal framework in order to continue
my analysis.

108 Souriau, Sur l’esthétique... ,Pp. 35.

Portmanteau nonsense is a category which includes both portmanteau and regular
words (possibly merely a few existing prepositions, conjunctions, interjections). One of it’s
main characteristics is retaining a regular functional syntactic structure.
The recognizable syntactic structure as well as the existing linguistic signs are some of
the elements which place this nonsense close to resembling an existing language (which is
what also makes the nonsense translatable), whereas the portmanteau words with their
ambiguity of meaning ‘draw’ this nonsense in the direction of asemantic nonsense.
The classic example of portmanteau nonsense is the first stanza of Lewis Carroll’s
„‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”109

Massegú points out that the poem follows conventional word order, that its existing
words are often function words (in Jabberwocky: pronouns, connectors, English verbs and
auxiliaries) and that it has inflectional markers110.
Although in some rare cases more than one part of speech can be attributed to a
portmanteau word, most of these words can be easily recognized as belonging to a particular
class of parts of speech due to their morphological resemblance to that particular class (e.g. ‘-
y’ as a termination for adjectives, ‘-ed’ for regular past tense verbs) and due to their sentential
context111. This is made obvious by the fact that sentences of portmanteau nonsense can easily
be rephrased:
„The slithy toves gyred and gimbled.
Gyre and gimble is what the slithy toves did.
It was in the wabe that the slithy toves gyred and gimbled.“112

Alice’s questions to Humpty Dumpty are also examples of such rephrasing, and
demonstrate the fact that Alice could also recognize parts of speech such as plural nouns and
infinitives: „what are toves [my emphasis]?“113 „What’s to ‘gyre’ and to ‘gimble’ [my
The way in which Humpty Dumpty assigns fixed meanings to the portmanteau words
resembles the procedure described by Dolitsky as a result of her study included in Under the
tumtum tree: from nonsense to sense, a study in non-automatic comprehension, investigating

109 Carroll, Pp. 191-197.

110 Massegu, Pp. 28.
111 ,Dolitsky, Pp. 14.
112 Dolitsky, Pp. 5.
Carroll, Through the Looking Glass… Pp. 271.
114 Ibid., Pp. 272.
the creation of meaning in the case of Jabberwocky. According to Dolitsky, readers assign
meanings to nonsense words in a functional syntactic structure by paying attention to
semantic and morphological clues which help them assign these words to classes and then
give them meaning: „ those [words] with adjectival morphology take on ‘adjectivish’
meanings (e.g. slithy), those with nominal morphology take on ‘nounish’ meaning (e.g. in the
wabe), etc.“115 See the next chapter for examples of Humpty Dumpty’s assigned meanings to
words from Jabberwocky.
This ability of assigning nonsense words to a part of speech due to the syntactic
context they are situated in, is reminiscent of de Saussure’s description of one of the main
characteristics of language, which is the fact that the value of the linguistic sign is set by its
relationship to or divergence from its surrounding signs.116 Regular words have a meaning
which can only be denoted by other words surrounding it, as is obvious from dictionary
definitions. Douglas Hofstadter points out the importance of this as well: „The fact that a
symbol cannot be awakened in isolation does not diminish the separate identity of the symbol;
in fact, quite to the contrary: a symbol’s identity lies precisely in its ways of being connected
(via potential triggering links) to other symbols.“117
An example of a case in which more than one class or part of speech can be attributed
would be the portmanteau „outgrabe“, which might be a past tense but might also be a
qualifier of „mome raths“. This is demonstrated by the ability to rephrase the last two lines of
the first stanza both as: „ While the borogoves were mimsy, the mome rather were
outgribing“, and as „While the borogoves were mimsy, the mome raths were outgrabe.“118
Another important characteristic of portmanteau nonsense is constituted by the
inability to build codes, much as in the case of asemantic nonsense. The portmanteau words,
due to their variety and ambiguity of meaning described earlier, are unable to merge into any
fixed codes. They succeed in building frames however, usually due to either merging with
existing linguistic signs or the established syntactic structure. Words classified as nouns will
be the potential active participants. Words following verbs which establish time or space will
be potential space-time qualifiers. The various phonetic and morphological associations or
their interaction with existing words can also lead to the successful building of frames.
According to my definition, as soon as the building of codes is possible, we are
outside the territory of portmanteau nonsense of multiple linguistic signs. I therefore believe
that only the first stanza (and last, being identical) of Jabberwocky is actual portmanteau

115 Dolitsky, Pp. 17.

116 Saussure, Pp. 137-138.
117 Hofstadter, Pp. 360.
118 Ibid.
nonsense, whereas the other stanzas, which contain far less portmanteau words than the first
one, are much closer to regular language than to portmanteau nonsense, because of their
ability to build a clear cultural code (along with the reader), that of the young man fighting a
fierce beast.
Here are some other examples of portmanteau nonsense:
„The gostak distims the doshes“119 is an example mentioned by Themerson, authored
by A. Ingraham in 1903.
The next example is from an article entitled „The Earth lay gloog, the cattle bollowed
deep“, published by Maggie Cook in the Guardian on November 3rd, 1984, and she quotes
someone named Kathy as the author composing this piece in their literary circle, the Boscobel
Poets of Hastings:
„In chemming speans the stolls crealed high
Blissing and dolling in tincting runnels“120

The recognizable syntactic structure of a nonsense including both portmanteau words

and existing words (among other possible nonsense words), along with the inability to build
codes, is the main characteristic of portmanteau nonsense. The first characteristic is also
responsible for portmanteau nonsense being easily recognized as belonging to a particular
language, and therefore being translatable.

1.2.2. Semantic nonsense

Semantic nonsense is characterized by logical contradictions or divergence from the

rules of logic. Liede mentions Steinthal’s „this round table is square“121 as a simple example.
As opposed to the linguistic signs of asemantic and morphological nonsense, those of
semantic nonsense have suffered no modification compared to ordinary language, both the
signifier and the signified have remained intact. Semantic nonsense arises at the level of the
interaction of the linguistic signifiers, the level of frames and codes.
The internal structure of nonsense text which Köhler describes as being characterized
by divergence from the rules of logic is the main characteristic of semantic nonsense.
Köhler’s observation that play does not constitute an important characteristic of nonsense and
is consequently not necessary in defining nonsense is interesting. Play is, perhaps, just like
dreaming, merely equivalent to semantic nonsense from a thematic point of view. The
definition of play can therefore be of help to us. Here is Huizinga’s definition:

119 Themerson, On Nonsense & On Logic-Fiction. Pp. 3.

120 Mc Arthur, Tom. Pp. 34-35.
121 Liede, Vol. I, Pp. 7.
“a voluntary occupation or activity executed within certain fixed limits of time and
place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself
and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is different
from ordinary life.[my emphasis]“122
Here are some examples of semantic nonsense from Liede, included in his collection
of folklore nonsense, a case of Leberreim (liver poetry, so termed due to its first line always
starting with this word) and Lügendichtung (liar poetry), and similar to the English doggerel:
„Die Leber ist von einem Hecht und nicht von einer Schleie,
Der Fisch will trinken, gebt ihm was, dass er vor Durst nicht schreie.“123

The liver is of a pike, not of a tench,

The fish will shriek for thirst, give him a drink his thirst to quench.124

„Zwei Fischlein saßen im Hühnerstall

und machten dort einen Mordskrawall!
Denn sie fingen an zu bellen,
sogar der Schellfisch begann zu schellen.“125

In the hen-house there perched two little fish,

And what a riot they were making!
They kept barking and barking and the barber fish
Had even started shaving.126

Semantic nonsense plays an important role in Edward Lear’s limericks as well:

“There was an Old Man of Moldavia,
Who had the most curious behaviour;
For while he was able
He slept on a table,
That funny Old Man of Moldavia.”127

„There was an Old Man of the Dee,

Who was sadly annoyed by a flea;
When he said ‘I will scratch it,’
They gave him a hatchet,
Which grieved that Old Man of the Dee.”128

122 „Spiel ist eine freiwillige Handlung oder Beschäftigung, die innerhalb gewisser festgesetzter Grenzen
von Zeit und Raum nach freiwillig angenommenen, aber unbedingt bindenden Regeln verrichtet wird,
ihr Ziel in sich selber hat und begleitet wird von einem Gefühl der Spannung und Freude und einem
Bewusstsein des ‚Andersseins’ als das ‚gewöhnliche Leben’“.Huizinga, Pp. 37.
123 In Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 178: Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg IV Spreeland: In dem
Spreewalde Nr. 3: Die Leber ist von einem Hechte; Wohlf. Ausgabe 9.-10. Aufl. Stuttgart-Berlin 1910,
9 f.
124 My translation.
125 Liede, Bd. II, Pp. 38.
126 My translation.
127 Lear, Complete Nonsense. Pp. 29.
128 Lear, Complete Nonsense. Pp. 51.
Why is the Old Man given a hatchet? Why does the other Old Man sleep on a table?
“Why all this curious behavior?” is a question which can be asked about most Learian
limericks. If one considers the action to be a mere side-effect of rhyme (as is so amusingly
thematized in Morgenstern’s aesthetic weasel129) -he is given a “hatchet” because it rhymes
with “scratch it”, the limerick might have just as well been the following:
There was an Old Man of Moldavia,
Who had the most proper behaviour;
For while he was able
He ate at a table,
That wonderful Old Man of Moldavia.

But this limerick would no longer be a type of nonsense. Liede also argues that
changing words or sounds into nonsense words just for the sake of rhyme is very rare. For
example, he mentions changing „vertrunken“ into „veritrunken“ as being very different from
changing „Sichel“ into „Sichael“ in order to rhyme with „Michael“.130 Whereas the second
case clearly indicates the change having been made for the sake of the rhyme, the first one,
according to Liede, is indicative of an intentional playfulness with language.
The main characteristic of semantic nonsense is the opposition between frames that
can merge into a code of logic and conventionality and frames that cannot, and therefore
merge into an opposite code, that of unconventionality/lack of logic. The frame of the Old
Man merely sleeping easily merges into our cultural code of sleep: we know that people
usually sleep on beds at night, with pillows, blankets, pajamas, etc. We are not surprised that
the man needs sleep. However, the frame that cannot fit into this code is the detail of the Old
Man sleeping on a table. This frame merges into a code of unconventionality.
The frames can be built either by the syntagmatic level of the text - the Old Man „had
the most curious behavior“, or by the cultural knowledge that the reader brings to the text -
knowledge of sleeping habits, or by both - in the majority of limericks it is actually built by
both. Often in the limericks the characters or their actions are described as peculiar, dubious,

129 Morgenstern, Pp. 47: Knight’s translation:

„Das aesthetische Wiesel „The aesthetic Weasel

Ein Wiesel A weasel

auf einem Kiesel perched on an easel
inmitten Bachgeriesel. within a patch of teasel.
Wisst ihr But why
weshalb? and how?
Das Mondkalb The Moon Cow
verriet es mir whispered her reply
im Stillen: one time:
Das raffinier- The sophees-
te Tier ticated beast
tat’s um des Reimes willen. “ did it just for the rhyme. “
130 Liede, Vol. II, Pp. 31.
strange and unmannerly, curious131, and the presence of critical others is also often signaled -
but they said...,people all turned aside, so they...., the people of...132. Both opposing codes are
built by the text itself in the limericks. One the other hand, the reader contributes to the
building of these codes. He draws upon his/her knowledge of what constitutes conventional
behaviour and what doesn’t. This knowledge enables him to participate in building these
codes. Barthes’ codes support the idea that the reader is not a mere consumer of the text, but
an active participant.
There are people performing actions which do not surprise in Lear’s limericks, they
act „as expected“ (upon reaching Weedon Station they announce „Weedon Station!“133), and
react by being surprised or disgusted by the actions of the main character. This relationship is
sometimes switched around, with the others being the ones to surprise the main character (as
in the case of „they gave him a hatchet“). In these cases the main character belongs to the
frame of logic and conventionality and the others belong to the opposing frame.
Another example which now clearly fits into the category of semantic nonsense is a
scene from Eugene Ionesco’s Bald Soprano. Mr. and Mrs. Martin are conversing, and have
the impression that they have seen each other before. They logically come to the (for them)
surprising conclusions that they both live in Manchester, that they had both left Manchester
five weeks earlier, that they had travelled on the same train, in the same compartment, sitting
exactly across from each other, that in London they both reside on Bromfield Street nr. 19, on
the fifth floor, and both live in apartment number 8, both sleep in the same bed, and that both
have a young daughter, 2 years old, blond, with a white and a red eye, called Alice. In this
way, the two come to the doubtless conclusion that they must be husband and wife.134
The text creates a code of conventionality upon stating the names of the two
characters, as well as the fact that they arrive together at the Smiths. It is a code of married
couples which is built, and our knowledge of marriage also participates in building it. The text
then proceeds to build frames which are unable to merge under this code. The Martins’
repeated surprise and shock at hearing that the other has done the same things and lived in the
same places (indicated by their repeated exclamations: “Wie seltsam!“135, „Wie
sonderbar!“136, „Welch ein Zusammenspiel!“137) prevents these frames to merge into the code
of logic and conventionality mentioned before. Despite these frames also following strong

131 Lear, Complete Nonsense.

132 Ibid.
133 Ibid., Pp. 69.
134 Ionesco, Die kahle Sängerin.
135 Ibid., Pp. 15.
136 Ibid.
137 Ibid.
rules of logic – one can hardly doubt the way in which the Martins come to the conclusion of
being husband and wife-, the frames’ merging into a code which opposes the code of
conventionality in the case of married couples is obvious. We do find it rather unusual that
people who sleep in the same bed fail to recognize each other. In the end, the maid further
accentuates the semantic nonsense, for she comes and informs us of the fallacy of the
Martins’ logic, the mistake in their deduction residing in the fact that their daughters’ eyes are
different (one’s left eye being red and the other white, whereas the other being exactly the
opposite), which leads to the logical conclusion that they are not husband and wife after all.
Here is another example of semantic nonsense from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of
the Snark:
„They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.“138

And here are some examples of semantic nonsense from Edward Lear: „that intrinsic
Old Man of Peru“(A Book of Nonsense), „perfect and abject happiness“, „a large well...., into
which they all fell superficially“, „they pursued their voyage with the utmost delight and
apathy“, „an earnest token of their sincere and grateful infection“(Nonsense Songs)139.
According to my definitions, malapropisms, which these examples from Lear are very
reminiscent of, would also be a type of semantic nonsense.
The semantic pataquès, which I have briefly mentioned earlier, is also worth including here.
It represents a case of nonsense at the level of multiple linguistic signs situated half way in between
morphological and semantic nonsense. Semantic pataquès indicates semantic errors, where words
are accidentally replaced by other semantically correct and phonetically similar words.140 In
its case it is always possible to decode the initial word which has been replaced, which is why
it is close to morphological nonsense. However, its effect, albeit accidental, strongly
resembles the effect of opposing codes typical of semantic nonsense. One of Souriau’s
examples for semantic pataquès is:
„L’ennuyeux dans les pays chauds, c’est qu’il faut coucher avec un mousquetaire
(voulant dire: avec une moustiquaire). “141
„The annoying part of being in warm countries is having to sleep with a musketeer.
(meaning to say: mosquito net).“142

138 Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, Fit the Fifth.

139 Partridge, Pp. 171-172.
140 Souriau, Pp. 23.
141 Ibid.
142 My translation.
The nonsense can be found in Tardieu’s play, One word for another (Un mot pour un
autre, 1950), is practically identical to the semantic , the only difference being that in
Tardieu’s play the substitutions are intentional, they do not appear as accidents of speech. In
this play the bourgeois inhabitants of France are struck by a linguistic epidemic which makes
them substitute words for other words in conversation, without being aware that they are
doing so. Therefore the lady says „you may drain“, rather than „you may go“, to her maid,
and the main character, when confronted with the women he is betraying exclaims „But this is
perspiration!“ instead of „But this is a conspiracy!“143 (in French “mais c’est une
transpiration”144 instead of “mais c’est une conspiration”). Although an instance of semantic
nonsense, the sentence is made understandable by means of the larger context of the play.
Because the presence of the substituted words leads to ‘misplaced’ frames, which cannot
merge with the conventional codes created by the other frames, this type of nonsense is
situated somewhat between morphological and semantic nonsense. The poetical function of language and semantic nonsense

In the case of semantic nonsense verse (e.g. Lear’s limericks, Morgenstern’s aesthetic
weasel) we encounter a double fulfillment of the poetical function of language. The poetical
element in Lear’s limericks has also been noted by Chesterton in his Defense of Nonsense and
by Aldous Huxley in his article on Edward Lear.
On the one hand, the unusual or unconventional action is subordinate to the poetical function
of language. The projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the
axis of combination (Jakobson)145 has antecedence; the rhyme does determine the action, the
Old Man is actually given a “hatchet” because it rhymes with “scratch it”.
On the other hand, the deviance from convention/logic is a technique of creating
poetical language by dehabitualization (Shklovsky), and this is the case for all semantic
nonsense, whether versified or not. The deviance is therefore not a mere side-effect of the
rhyme, but a mode of transforming language into poetical language. Deviation from the rules
of logic is, at the same time, deautomatization of our familiar ‘world order’, and consequently
has a poetical effect. It is interesting to note that Shklovsky himself used a metaphor rooted in
semantic nonsense as an example for the deautomatization of language:
„Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war …
And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel

143 “Tardieu”, Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama, Pp. 1330.

Tardieu, Un mot…, Pp. 64.
145 Jakobson, Pp.29.
things, to make the stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things
as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make
objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of
perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be
prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not

Making the stone “stony“ is an example of semantic nonsense, just as „making the sun
sunny“ would be as well. Being stony is (conventionally) the main attribute of a stone,
therefore making a stone stony is semantically nonsensical. Shklovsky uses it however as a
metaphor for the fact that our perception of a stone, just as our perception of language,
becomes habitual, we don’t pay much attention to it in our daily lives, we have stopped
perceiving the ‘stoniness’ of the stone, but art brings the attention towards this ‘stoniness’
back into our lives. Metaphorical interpretation of semantic nonsense

Semantic nonsense can be disguised by successful metaphorical interpretation. However, my

argument is that this does not undo or cancel the semantic nonsense.
Here are some examples of semantic nonsense which I will be referring to in my
argumentation. They are from Aglaja Veteranyi’s Why the child is boiling in the polenta:
„Im Zimmer begann es zu schneien./ Das Sofa fror ein./ Die Wände froren ein./ Meine Hände
und Füße froren ein./ Meine Augen./ Der Schnee deckte mich zu.“147
(It started snowing in the waiting room. The sofa froze. The walls froze. My hands and feet
froze. My eyes. The snow covered me.)


(I let my skin fall to the floor.)

In the case of the first example the context builds the frame of a waiting room in Paris that
looked like the waiting room of a doctor. This frame immediately makes us recall our own knowledge
of conventional waiting rooms. They usually have a ceiling, a floor, walls and, possibly, windows,
chairs or sofas, perhaps also tables, plants, pictures on the walls, and so on. This conventional frame
excludes the possibility of snowing or of extremely low temperatures in the room. But the girl does
freeze and get covered by snow, according to the text. The snow therefore does not fit into the frame
of conventionality. The snowing and intense freezing, in this case, can be successfully interpreted as
metaphors of waiting for a long time. The second example appears in the context of the girl being left
in a children’s home by her parents. Since speaking of undressing one’s skin as though it were a coat

146 Shklovsky, Pp. 3-5.

147 Ibid., Pp. 166.
148 Veteranyi, Pp. 85.
builds a frame which opposes our knowledge of the human body and the impossibility of one skinning
oneself and remaining alive, this is an example of semantic nonsense. The metaphor which can
successfully be built from this semantic nonsense is one of defenselessness and sadness, since the
child has been abandoned by her parents.
The connection between metaphor and semantic nonsense has already come to light in
metaphor theory, particularly in Beardsley’s Controversion Theory of Metaphor. In Beardsley’s and
also in Nelson Goodman’s consideration of metaphor, the element of mistake or contradiction had a
central position. According to Monroe C. Beardsley, metaphor rests on a verbal opposition, the
conflict of the two parts of the metaphor which are in logical contradiction to each other (these two
parts being, in Beardsley’s terminology, the ‘modifier’ and the ‘subject’ of metaphorical attribution,
or, in Richards’ terminology, the ‘vehicle’ and ‘tenor’ of the metaphor). Rolf quotes Beardsley to
claim that the contradiction turning an expression into a metaphor already takes place at the level of
the structure of meaning itself. It is this logical contradiction which gives the modifier its metaphorical
twist, says Beardsley.
The process of metaphoricity, as described by him, has a lot in common with semantic
nonsense. Metaphorical attribution, according to Beardsley, involves two main ingredients: a semantic
distinction between two levels of meaning (which I have referred to as two codes) and a logical
opposition at one level149 (if we take Veteranyi’s example literally, the girl takes her skin off, which is
The claim of the controversion theory is that metaphorical attribution is an important feature of
living language, which is possible under the strangest, most nonsensical circumstances:
„[Even] if we put all English adjectives in a hat, and all nouns in the other, and drew them out
at random, we would find that the strangest combinations yield possible meanings upon
reflection; and this is a significant feature of living language.“150
Propositions lacking logic determine the reader to search for a secondary meaning, on a
further level. Christian Strub, a representative of a theory of metaphor which also considers logical
opposition central to its functioning, argues that diagnosed absurdity forces one to search for a
meaningful interpretation. He also points out the significant difference between simile and metaphor
as residing in the fact that the metaphor, when taken literally, produces an absurdity, whereas a simile
does not.151
According to Umberto Eco, the metaphor forces one to flee into one’s web of encyclopedic
competence in search for meaning. The beginning as well as the end of this flight’s path is present on
the syntagmatic level of text, but the path itself is absent. My argument is that the reader is already

149 Rolf, Pp. 51. (Beardsley [1962]/1983, pp. 130)

150 Ibid., Pp. 51.
151 Ibid., Pp. 52. (Strub (1991), Pp. 416)
forced to make this flight of searching for possible metaphorical interpretations when encountering
any case of semantic nonsense, by its opposing frames. The nonsense, however, can only be
considered as a metaphor also if the path can successfully be brought to an end. Lear’s limericks, for
example, never allow us to find any metaphorical interpretation, which is why they are such obvious
examples of semantic nonsense.
The metaphorical interpretations which are usually enabled by Veteranyi’s text fall under
Aristotle’s third type of metaphor, which Eco has focused on in his work. Eco’s porphyrian tree
provides us with visual illustrations of successful metaphorical interpretation. In the case of the
Veteranyi examples, they would be represented in the following way:

slow process defenselessness/sadness

freezing, snowing waiting letting one’s skin fall the girl was left by her
to the floor parents in a children’s
Based on Eco’s and Beardsley’s theory of metaphor and my analysis of the interaction
of frames and codes in semantic nonsense, one can claim semantic nonsense to be the first
step in all metaphorical interpretation, somewhat ‘closer’ to the syntagmatic level of the text.
Strub claims that if metaphorical interpretation is successful, the absurdity, or logical
opposition disappears.152 Sewell seems to suggest a similar position, by claiming that when
equilibrium is reached we are dealing with poetry rather than with nonsense:
„If the two forces of order and disorder in the mind form the two poles of the dialectic
in the Nonsense game, a distinction between Nonsense and poetry at once becomes possible,
for poetry aims at an equilibrium, even if momentary, between the two forces, an enchanted
instant of reconciliation; whereas Nonsense is going to be a battle, with our lot thrown in on
one side and all available energy directed towards keeping the opponent in play, lest he in turn
seize the initiative and establish control.”153
One can already argue against Sewell by mentioning the poetical nature of semantic
nonsense, which I have talked about earlier. Semantic nonsense is already a type of poetry and
can therefore not situate itself outside poetry. Sewell’s „two forces of order and disorder in

152 Ibid.
153 Sewell, Pp. 46.
the mind“ as well as the „dialectic of the nonsense game“ however, overlap surprisingly well
with my theory of semantic nonsense regarding the opposition between frames and codes.
My claim is that even when the flight into the web of encyclopedic knowledge comes
to a successful end - if successful metaphorical interpretation is possible, semantic nonsense is
not cancelled out by this process, but merely concealed by it. It falls into a secondary position,
because the frames can primarily merge under a code other than the two opposing codes.
The interaction theory of metaphor is also supportive of my argument. According to
this theory, a reciprocal selection and accentuation of the features of the two components of
metaphor takes place. The two parts, ‘tenor’ and ‘vehicle’ or ‘subject’ and ‘modifier’ have a
reciprocal influence on each other, which leads both sides to changes in their meanings.154
Some of the snow therefore remains in the room, even though it cannot possibly snow in
there, and, with respect to the intradiegetic stories of a child boiling in polenta, something of
that child remains in Veteranyi’s book, despite the possibility of it being interpreted as the
„fantasy of a self-inflected punishment“155 or as „constant narrative orchestration of one’s
own death“.156
In the case of the Veteranyi text most samples of semantic nonsense merge primarily
into a psychiatric code. The psychiatric code is a cultural code built by the text. In Barthes’
words, „cultural codes are references to a science or a body of knowledge (physical,
physiological, medical, psychological, literary, historical, etc.) referred to, without going so
far as to construct (or reconstruct) the culture they express.”157
This code is invoked by words, sentences and actions form the text such as:
„meine Schwester ist auch verrückt, sagt meine Mutter, weil mein Vater sie wie eine
Frau liebt. Ich muss aufpassen, dass ich nicht auch verrückt werde, deshalb nimmt
mich meine Mutter überall mit“158, (My mother says my sister is also crazy, because
my father loves her like a woman. I have to watch out, not to become crazy too, that’s
why my mother takes me with her everywhere she goes.)

„ich schreie nicht. Ich habe meinen Mund weggeworfen“159

(I do not scream, I’ve thrown my mouth away)

„Meine Schwester und ich haben unsere eigenen Spiele.

Ich steige auf ihre Schultern und lasse mich auf die Kieselsteine fallen. Sie trinkt
Wasser aus dem Kuhtrog. Ich lege Erde in mein Butterbrot. Sie klemmt sich den
Finger in die Tür ein. Ich kratze mich, bis ich blute. Sie reißt sich eine Handvoll Haare
aus. Ich lasse mich rittlings auf eine Stuhlkante fallen.

154 Rolf, Pp. 47 (Waggoner (1990), pp. 93)

155 Suren, Pp. 180.
156 Ibid.
157 Barthes, S/Z. Pp. 20.
158 Ibid., Pp. 22.
159 Ibid., Pp. 31.
Wir wollen ins Spital.“160
(My sister and I have our own games.
I climb on her shoulders and let myself fall on the pebbles. She drinks water from the
cow feeder. I put earth in my sandwich. She jams her finger at the door. I scratch
myself till I bleed. She pulls herself a handful of hair out. I let myself fall astride on
the edge of the chair.
We want to get into the hospital.)

Elements of the story such as the fact that the children are left by the parents in a
children’s home and feel abandoned, or that the underage girl, under her mother’s
encouragement, participates in vaudeville shows (nearly) naked, also belong to specifications
which help build the psychiatric code.
In the case of successful metaphorical interpretation, due to primarily merging under a
different code, semantic nonsense is situated on a position of secondary importance, and can
easily be overlooked. The nonsense with its codes of logical conventionality and its reverse therefore
receives a position of secondary importance.

Looking at definitions of literary nonsense again, we can see that my development of criteria
for structural differentiation between different types of nonsense finds an echo in many of them.
However, these definitions are too general, applying elements characteristic of certain types of
nonsense to all nonsense. Here are some definitions where clear connections to my analysis are
According to Strachey, nonsense is a humorous way of “bringing confusion into order by
setting things upside down, bringing them into all sorts of unnatural, impossible and absurd, but not
painful or dangerous, combinations.”161 Tigges names the four main characteristics of nonsense to be
“the tension between meanings and its absence, the creation of reality by means of language, the
absence of emotional involvement, and the element of play.”162
Reichert’s and Kreutzer’s statements are clearly reminiscent of the functioning of semantic
nonsense. Reichert points out that “the method of nonsense is a repeated alternation between the
presentation of a norm and its breaking”163, whereas Kreutzer says that the principal characteristics of
nonsense are the “incongruence of a text leaving the expectations of sense unfulfilled, visual distortion
of observed reality, and pseudo-logical connections, arising from a playful delight in abnormality.”164

160 Ibid., Pp. 103.

Strachey, “Nonsense as a Fine Art,” Pp.35.
Tigges, An anatomy…, Pp. 257.
Reichert, Lewis Carroll…, Pp. 12
Kreutzer, Lewis Carroll…, Pp. 74.
2. Jabberwocky, the poem

„They’ve a temper [words], some of them […] however, I can manage the
whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say! [my emphasis]“165

The first stanza of Jabberwocky initially appeared in Mischmasch, the last of a hand-
written series of private periodicals created by Lewis Carroll for the entertainment of his
siblings, with most entries and illustrations composed by him.166 It is titled “Stanza of Anglo-
Saxon Poetry” and dated “Croft, 1855”, when Carroll was aged 23, 16 years before the
inclusion of its extended version in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
Here is this stanza as it appeared in Mischmasch167:

The stanza is followed by:

“This curious fragment reads thus in modern characters:



The only modification applied in order to bring the poem to its modern version was
the mere transformation of “Ye” into “the”. The text in Mischmasch is then followed by
several explanations of the words in the poem, and a version of the text in “literal English”170
describing the alleged meaning of the stanza, as though it were in an ancient language, hard to
decrypt. The Mischmasch text finishes stating “this is an obscure, but yet deeply-affecting,
relic of ancient Poetry.”171 All of these factors, as well as the script being visually reminiscent
of ancient Runic script172, indicate the parodist quality of the poem.

165 Humpty Dumpty in Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass..., Pp. 269.

166 Gardner, The Annotated Alice, Pp. 191.
167 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 139.
169 Ibid.
170 Carroll, Mischmasch, Pp. 141.
Robu, Pp. 170.
Here is the poem, as it appeared in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found
There in 1871:

‘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.”173

I have included the end rhyme scheme next to the poem listed again below, and one
can see it is a simple scheme (abab) with the first quatrain repeating in the end. The poem
uses this type of rhyme scheme in all stanzas except 3, 5 and 6, where it has a simple 4-line
rhyme scheme (efgf).
With respect to rhetorical terms, several cases of alliteration, assonance and
consonance have been marked on the text of the poem below, of which I will only mention
some of the most obvious: “Callooh! Callay!”, “gyre and gimble”, “Come to my arms, my
beamish boy,” “Beware the Jubjub bird“, “brillig, and the slithy toves […]/All mimsy were

173 Carroll, Pp. 191-197.

the borogoves”, “Long time the manxome foe he sought”. There are also several repetitions:
Tumtum, Jubjub, “One, two! One, two! And through and through” and onomatopoeia such as
whiffle or burble.

“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves a

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: b
All mimsy were the borogoves, a
And the mome raths outgrabe. b

‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son! c

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! d
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun c
The frumious Bandersnatch!’ d
He took his vorpal sword in hand: e
Long time the manxome foe he sought - f
So rested he by the Tumtum tree, g
And stood awhile in thought. f
And, as in uffish thought he stood, h
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, i
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, h
And burbled as it came! i
One, two! One, two! And through and through j
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! k
He left it dead, and with its head l
He went galumphing back. k
‘And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? m
Come to my arms, my beamish boy! n
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ o
He chortled in his joy.” n

Other rhetorical terms present in the poem are the anaphora174 “Beware the
Jabberwock […] / Beware the Jubjub bird”, the anastrophe175 “So rested he by the Tumtum
tree,” the synecdoche “the jaws that bite, the claws that catch”, and the chiasmus “and stood
awhile in thought./And, as in uffish thought he stood.” Whether the Jabberwock’s eyes of
flame build a metaphor or not is arguable. The creature certainly has jaws and claws as most
animals we are familiar with, and in their case this would certainly be a metaphor, but the
Jabberwock is an imaginary creature, and who can claim that the fire in the eyes of an
imaginary beast may not be taken literally? In any case, these flames, whether building a

„A Glossary of Rhetorical Terms with Examples.“
metaphor or not, certainly contribute to our building of a frame where the Jabberwock has
dragon-like attributes, which further on merges into the proairetic code of the youth fighting
the beast, in which we recognize such legends as that of Saint George fighting the Dragon, but
I will continue this train of thought further on.

The poem is in iambic tetrameter, since there are four iambs (˘-, unstressed syllable

followed by stressed syllable) in each line of verse, except for the last verse of each stanza,
which only has three (and is therefore in iambic trimeter). The last line of the first stanza,

“and the mome raths”, is a double iamb (˘˘--) and is also counted as two feet176.

˘ - /˘ - / ˘ -/˘ - /
“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
˘ - /˘ -/ ˘ -/ ˘ - /
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
˘ - /˘ - / ˘ -/ ˘ - /
All mimsy were the borogoves,
˘ ˘ - - /˘ - /
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

There are two lines which slightly diverge from this, namely the 3rd line of the 3rd

stanza, “so rested he by the Tumtum tree” (˘-/˘-/˘˘-/˘-), where there is an extra syllable

compared to the usual eight, which turns one iamb into an anapest (˘˘-)177, and the 2nd line of

the 6th stanza, “come to my arms, my beamish boy” (-˘/˘-/˘-/˘-), where the first two

syllables build a trochee(-˘)178 instead of a iamb.

Iambic tetrameter is, next to iambic pentameter, the most common meter used in
English poetry.179 In ballad verse features alternate lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter in
four-line stanzas180, it is therefore no wonder Carroll uses exactly this rhythm, typical to the
English ballad, seen that the poem is an indirect parody of a ballad.
Let me come back to the question of the poem as a parody. There had been rumors in
England at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, claiming that Jabberwocky was a
translation from a German original. There was a letter in Macmillian’s Magazine in February
1872 under the name of Thomas Chatterton and an article in a leading Sunday paper in
McLaughlin, Damon.
„iambic tetrameter.“ Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
September 1924 both claiming the aforementioned181, and it is worth pointing out that the
former showed a somewhat stronger sense of irony than the latter, by claiming, among others,
that “the celebrated Jabberwocky was taken from a German ballad by the well-known author
of ‘The Lyar’.”182 Both claim the author of the original German poem would be a certain
Schwindler, or von Schwindler,183 a name which means “trickster”, “conman” or “cheater” in
German, and even has the very similar English equivalent “swindler”.
The dispute regarding the origin of the poem was settled a few weeks later in the same
Sunday paper, with the publishing of a letter by Mr. Walter Scott from Eastbourne, who
explained that the German poem Das Jammerwoch, a few lines of which had been published
in the previous articles, was authored by his father, Robert Scott, as part of a challenge “made
to him at Deanery, Rochester, in the spring of 1872, to translate the first verse. To this he
replied by producing the version in question of the whole poem the next morning.”184 Mr.
Scott also states that his father was the author of the Macmillan article regarding the “mock-
serious account of its origin”185.
It is known that the main part of the poem was composed by Carroll while he was
staying with his cousins, the Misses Wilcox, at Whitburn, near Sunderland. “To while away
an evening the whole party sat down to a game of verse-making, and Jabberwocky was his
contribution.”186 While there, Carroll often met a mutual cousin of his and the Wilcoxes,
Menella Bute Smedley, also a poet. The Lewis Carroll Handbook mentions that Smedley and
Carroll often exchanged and recommended each other’s writings, and that Carroll had
certainly read everything Menella Smedley had published.187 Among Smedley’s writings is
the translation of a German ballad which is, at least thematically, a very probable source of
inspiration for Carroll’s Jabberwocky.
Smedley’s translation is titled The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains and was
published in Sharpe’s London Magazine in two parts, on March 7th and 21st, 1846 188
. The
original is attributed to Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué(1777-1843)189, but I have unfortunately
not been able to trace it, despite all of my efforts. Most texts referring to Smedley’s
translation seem to be content with only mentioning Fouqué as the author, without

181 Williams, The Lewis Carroll Handbook, Pp. 307.

182 Ibid., Pp. 307.
183 Ibid.
184 Ibid.
185 Ibid.
186 Ibid., Pp. 308.
187 Ibid.
188 For full quotation see Smedley.
The complete poem can be found online at:
Years of birth and death according to Gutenberg: .
reproducing any part of the original text, and the books by Fouqué which I have consulted
seem to have only considered other texts by him worth including. At that time even Sharpe
merely mentions the name of the author, without giving the German name of the poem.
The main argument to Carroll’s Jabberwocky being a parody of this ballad’s
translation by Smedley is the fact that the two have virtually identical story lines. What we
recognize as common in the two poems, in addition to the story line, is the general feeling and
atmosphere,190 the tone or the manner of expression. Most people who have addressed this
matter insisted on Jabberwocky being considered a parody in a wider sense. The Shepherd...
“is in many hundreds of lines of rambling blank verse”191 (iambic pentameter), “the similarity
cannot be pinned down precisely”192, as was the case with most other parodies by Carroll, for
example How doth the little crocodile, which appears in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,
being an obvious direct parody of Against Idleness and Mischief by Isaac Watts.
The German ballad tells the story of Gottschalk, a young shepherd who manages to
kill the monstrous griffin that was ravaging flocks and terrorizing the people of the Giant
Mountains, mountains in a region between Bohemia and Silesia, now between the Czech
Republic and Poland. The griffin is a mythological bird of prey “typically having the head,
forepart, and wings of an eagle and the body, hind legs, and tail of a lion “193.Tenniel’s
illustration of the Jabberwock (which can be seen further on in this chapter) seems to have
many similarities to a griffin, which is another factor supporting the argument that
Jabberwocky is a parody of this ballad. The griffin also appears in Alice’s Adventures in

The griffin in “The shepherd of the Giant The griffin in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Mountains”, Frontispiece of London’s Sharpe Magazine194 Illustrator: John Tenniel195

190 Williams, The Lewis Carroll Handbook,, Pp. 308.

191 Ibid.
192 Ibid.
193 “Griffin”, Merriam-Webster Online.
Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Pp. 125.
Hans, an older comrade, warns Gottschalk against his light-heartedness and
indifference at a time when the griffin is a menace to all:
“And there he sits and trifles with his pipe,
As though ‘twere nothing! [...]
First, one by one, it will devour our flocks,
Sheep, oxen, calves, and lambs; when none are left
Of all the herds, then comes the herdsman’s turn!
Ay, even now, I’ve watched it through the clouds,
If suddenly a man hath come in sight,
Roll hungrily its cursed and gloating eyes
As if impatient for its prey.”196

Gottschalk later hears from a messenger, that the duke offers the hand of his daughter,
Adiltrude, to the man who will free the kingdom from the griffin’s grasp, and since the
shepherd had already set his eyes set on the beautiful maiden, he decides to murder the griffin.
Gottschalk finds its nest and leaves again to sharpen his iron-tipped staff. Upon returning,
overcome by fear and dark thoughts, he pauses in order to pray and regain confidence. He sets
fire to the nest and the griffin’s wings catch fire when it comes to rescue its offspring:
“The reeling monster falls upon the grass.
Now, shepherd, now! Where is thy ready staff?
Stroke upon stroke he hurls against the foe:
He stabs it in the fiery eye – the beast
Rears in wild rage, then, quick as thought, the staff
Pierces its undefended breast, and sinks,
Sure, deep and deadly, in the ruthless heart![my emphasis]”197

Further on Gottschalk proves that he is worthy of Adiltrude’s hand by becoming a

knight, fighting for his honor and generally acting as gallantly as only an exemplary knight
could. In the end even the duke is happy to have him as a son-in-law, and exclaims:
“Come to my heart, my true and gallant son!”198
Several elements reappear in Carroll’s Jabberwocky: the warning of the youth by an
older man, the mentioning of the monster’s “eyes of flame” - “the fiery eye” in The
Shepherd..., the short pause before the confrontation with the monster, as well as the presence
of a tree in the immediate space of confrontation. However, only the final exclamation,
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy!” can be identified as a direct parody. Jabberwocky is
rather a parody of an entire genre of romantic ballads, than a direct parody of this particular
ballad. Reichertz notes that the differences between the two poems are more striking than the

196 Smedley, Pp. 298.

197 Ibid., Pp. 326.
198 Ibid., Pp. 328.
similarities, and that in Carroll’s poem “there is little or no romance detail, and language itself
becomes the centre of attention.”199
Although pastoral themes had been present in painting for a long time, the particular
theme of a shepherd pensively resting by a momentous tree in the middle of nature seems to
have been circulating at this time. It also appears in a Romantic landscape painting by Caspar
David Friedrich from 1822, Solitary Tree, in which a shepherd is resting under a huge oak
tree, with the same Giant Mountains as the ones in the Fouqué ballad, portrayed in the
background200. Friedrich, while living in Berlin and Dresden, had often gone hiking in those
mountains for inspiration.201
Shaw compares Jabberwocky with the Scottish ballad Edward, Edward, which is a
murder ballad too. He also concludes that the poem is rather a general parody of the “tone and
the form of ancient ballads”, since there is no evidence of Carroll having had “any special
poem in mind”.202

Caspar David Friedrich – The Solitary Tree, 1822, oil on canvas,

Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 203

199 Reichertz, pp. 99.

Siegel, Caspar David Friedrich and the Age of German Romanticism. Pp. 108.
Ibid., Pp. 109.
202 Williams, The Lewis Carroll Handbook., Pp. 312.
„Caspar David Friedrich – The Solitary Tree, 1822“, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Here is the engraving which appeared on the frontispiece of Sharpe’s London
Magazine in March 7, 1846, illustrating Smedley’s translated ballad, The Shepherd of the
Giant Mountains:

Frank McCormick claims that the first two lines of Jabberwocky are a possible parody
of the following lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from the first scene204:
“The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the
Roman streets”205.

McCormick’s arguments supporting this idea are the following: firstly, the
Jabberwocky lines seem to bear syntactic and verbal similarities to the two lines from Hamlet
(especially: “and the slithy toves” to “and the sheeted dead”, and “did gyre and gimble” to
“did squeak and gibber”), and the entire first stanza allegedly evokes elements of the setting
and ambiance of Hamlet’s opening scene206. Secondly, Carroll produced several parodies of
Shakespeare as a young writer (Gattegno). Thirdly, Hamlet is a play Carroll was particularly
fond of. His diary records him attending it nine times between 1856 and 1896, and quotations
from or mentions of Hamlet appear in his letters ten times between 1873 and 1893207. And
lastly, Carroll was contemplating preparing an edition with a “properly expurgated” selection
of Shakespeare's plays for young readers, though much later than the time Jabberwocky was
written.208 An argument Palmer mentions is the fact that Carroll had previously explicitly

McCormick, "Horatio's 'Gibber' and Carroll's 'Jabberwocky.'"
Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1. Pp. 1029.
McCormick. "Horatio's 'Gibber' and Carroll's 'Jabberwocky'."
included these exact two lines from Shakespeare in another poem, Phantasmagoria, published
in 1869209:
"And when you've learned to squeak, my man,
And caught the double sob,
You're pretty much where you began:
Just try and gibber if you can!
That's something like a job! [...]

Shakspeare I think it is who treats

Of Ghosts, in days of old,
Who 'gibbered in the Roman streets,'
Dressed, if you recollect, in sheets —
They must have found it cold.”210

Francis Huxley points out Salvatore Rosa’s painting of the Temptation of St Anthony
as a strong source of inspiration for Tenniel’s Jabberwock. An engraving of this painting was
apparently included in Hone’s Every Day Book on January 17, a book which was found in
Carroll’s library after his death211. The engraving shows St Anthony and the larger demon in a
very similar position to that of the boy and the Jabberwock in the Tenniel illustration.
According to Huxley, “the larger demon is unmistakably the original of the Jabberwock, and
it seems clear that Carroll drew Tenniel’s attention to the figure.”212

The Trial of Saint Anthony, illustration for January John Tenniel’s Illustration of the
th 213
17 . William Hone, The Every-day Book, 1831. Jabberwock214

Palmer, "Hamlet and Jabberwocky”.
Carroll, Phantasmagoria…, Canto IV.
Huxley, Francis, Pp. 68.
Ibid., Pp. 183.
Let us now turn to Carroll’s poem. The table below attempts to correlate nonsense
words from the poem with some of their possible associations and their existing and invented
meanings, many of them based on the author’s letters, paratextual information, and the
explanations given either by characters or the narrator himself in Carroll’s texts. Please keep
in mind that there are certainly several other possible entries.

Nonsense Pronunciati Invented Definitions Related Associations/ Intertextuali

Word – on Existing Definitions / ty with
Part of Notes other
Speech Carroll texts
Bryllyg/ The Narrator „(derived from the verb “Bright, brilliant.”216
brillig, in to BRYL or BROIL ) „Broil. Dr Murray declares it of
Adv. Mischmasch ‘the time of broiling uncertain origin and history.
dinner, i.e. the close of The form brule, he states,
the afternoon.’“215 appears to be the F.[French]
brûler. But it may be a distinct
Humpty „Four o’clock in the
word. He recognizes however
Dumpty in afternoon — the time
that the O.F. [old French]
TTLG218 when you begin
bruillir (in Godefroy) may have
broiling things for
given bruyle, which would
become broyle, broil.“ 217
Slythy/ „The ‘i’ […] is The Narrator „(compounded of „Probably activates such
slithy, long, as in in SLIMY and LITHE) symbols as ‘slimy’, ‘slither’,
Adj. ‘writhe’;“220 Mischmasch ‘Smooth and ‘slippery’, ‘lithe’ and ‘sly’, to
„Pronounce active.’“222 varying extents.“223
‘slithy’ as if it According to the Oxford
Humpty „‘Lithe and slimy’.
were the two English Dictionary, „lithe“
Dumpty ‘Lithe’ is the same as
words ‘sly, means „slim, supple, and
‘active.’ You see it’s
the’“221 graceful“, from the Old English
like a portmanteau —
„gentle, meek, mellow.“224
there are two meanings
Merriam-Webster also mentions
packed up into one
227 „easily bent or flexed“,
„characterized by easy
Gardner mentions it being
recorded as a variant of
„sleathy“, „an obsolete word
meaning slovenly, negligent.“226

Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 198.
215 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 139.
216 Trabasso, T. and S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives." Pp. 541.
217 Derocquigny, Jules. A Contribution to the Study of the French Element in English.
My abbreviation for Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.
219 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 270.
220 Carroll, Preface to The Hunting of the Snark.
221 Carroll, Preface to Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There dated 1896, Pp. 171.
222 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
223 Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach. Pp. 372.
224 “lithe.” Oxford English Dictionary.
225 “lithe.” Merriam-Webster Online.
226 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 194.
227 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 271.
Toves, „‘toves’ is The Narrator „A species of Badger. “Toves for its ‘rhyme’
Noun pronounced so in They had smooth white coves,”230 Cove – recessed
as to rhyme Mischmasch hair, long hind legs, place, concavity, or, as second
with and short horns like a meaning: man.231 “There is a
‘groves’.“228 stag: lived chiefly on clear allusion to coves,
cheese.“229 ‘fellows.’”
Humpty „something like
Dumpty badgers -they’re
something like lizards-
and they are something
like corkscrews. [...]
They make their nests
under sundials-also
they live on cheese.“232
Gyre, „make the ‘g’ The Narrator „verb (derived from Not a nonsense word, merely
Verb hard in in GYAOUR or archaic. Merriam-Webster dates
‘gyre’“233 Mischmasch GIAOUR, ‘a dog’). ‘To it back to 1593, and the Oxford
scratch like a dog.’“234 English Dictionary to 1420235,
and its meaning as verb is „to
move in a circle or spiral.“236
„Giaour“ means „one outside
the Islamic faith : infidel“237.
Humpty „to go round and round
Dumpty like a gyroscope“238
Gymble „make the ‘g’ The Narrator „(whence “Gimble […] bears an
/gimble, hard in [...] in GIMBLET).’To screw associated meaning,
Verb ‘gimble’“239; Mischmasch out holes in compounded of gambol
“pronounced anything.’“241 nimbly.”242 Gambol - to run or
ghimble, jump about playfully243, nimble
Humpty „to make holes like a
rhyming with – quick and agile244.
Dumpty gimlet.“248
thimble”240 A gimlet is „a small tool with a
screw point, grooved shank, and
cross handle for boring
holes“245, the word can be
traced back to the 14th century
Middle English, from Anglo-
French guimbelet, from Middle
French (Picard), modification of
Middle Dutch wimmelkijn, from

228 Carroll, Preface to The Hunting of the Snark..

229 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
Partridge, Pp. 185.
„cove,“Merriam-Webster Online.
232 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 271.
233 Carroll, Preface to Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There dated 1896, Pp. 171.
234 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
235 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 194.
236 “gyre,” Merriam-Webster Online.
237 “giaour,” Merriam-Webster Online.
238 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
239 Carroll, Preface to Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There dated 1896, Pp. 171.
Partridge, Pp. 186.
241 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
Partridge, Pp. 186.
„gambol,“ Oxford English Dictionary.
„nimble,“ Oxford English Dictionary.
245 “gimlet,”Merriam-Webster Online.
wimmel wimble. The verb is „to
Gardner found „gimble“ as a
variant spelling of „gimbal“, a
pivoted ring used for various
purposes, „such as suspending a
ship’s compass so that it
remains horizontal:“247
Wabe, The Narrator „(derived from the verb “Wabe obviously recalls wave,
Noun in to SWAB or SOAK). especially in the light of gyre
Mischmasch ‘The side of a hill’ and gimble.”250 Wabe “could be
(from its being soaked water, or could be froth or could
by the rain).“249 be anything.”251
Humpty „‘And ‘the wabe’ is the
Dumpty grass plot round a
sundial, I suppose?’
[...] ‘Of course it is. It’s
called ‘wabe,’ you
know, because it goes a
long way before it, and
a long way behind it’—
‘And a long way
beyond it on each side’,
Alice added.“252
Mimsy, The Narrator „(whence Gardner discovered that in „and chanted
Adv. in MIMSERABLE and Carroll’s time „mimsey“ meant in mimsical
Mischmasch MISERABLE). „prim, prudish, tones“255,
‘unhappy’.“253 contemptible.“254 The Hunting of
the Snark, Fit
Humpty „Flimsy and
7, Verse 9.
Dumpty miserable.“256
Borogoves, „The first ‘o’ The Narrator „An extinct kind of “Perhaps a borough (=citified=
Noun […] is in Parrot. They had no dusty and bedraggled) dove,
pronounced Mischmasch wings, beaks turned up, with vowels perverted.”259
like the ‘o’ in and made their nests Gardner notes that it is often
‘borrow’. I under sun-dials: lived mispronounced ‘borogroves’ by
have heard on veal.“258 „Carrollian novitiates.“260
people try to
Humpty „A thin shabby-looking
give it the
Dumpty bird with its feathers
sound of the
sticking out all round—
‘o’ is ‘worry’.
something like a live
Such is Human

248 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.

246 Ibid.
247 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 194.
249 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
Partridge, Pp. 185.
251 Trabasso, T., S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives." Pp. 542.
252 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
253 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
254 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 195.
255 Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, Fit 7, Verse 9.
256 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
257 Carroll, Preface to The Hunting of the Snark.
258 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
Mome, The Narrator „(hence SOLEMOME, “the ultimate abbreviation of
Adj. in SOLEMONE, and ‘movement.’”263
Mischmasch SOLEMN). According to Gardner, it has
‘Grave.’“ several obsolete meanings such
as „mother, a blockhead, a
Humpty “‘mome’ I’m not carping critic, a buffoon.“264
Dumpty certain about. I think And in this case the reality
it’s short for ‘from proves to be even more amusing
home’ — meaning that than the nonsense: according to
they’d lost their Wikipedia, „Mome may refer to
way.”266 a term for the female analogue
of Pope.“265
Raths, „pronounce The Narrator „A species of land “a lisped rat.”269
Noun ‘rath’ to rhyme in turtle. Head erect: “We should first alter ‘mome
with ‘bath’“267 Mischmasch mouth like a shark: the raths’ to ‘rath momes’,
fore legs curved out so understanding ‘rath’ as ‘quick,
that the animal walked eager, early’ – as in Milton’s
on its knees: smooth ‘rathe primroses.’”270
green body: lived on “The Rath, or Burmese Imperial
swallows and State Carriage; captured, in
oysters.“268 September 1825, at Tavoy, a
seaport in the Burmese empire.
Humpty „a sort of green pig.“275
Hone’s Everyday Book Nov. 28
entry”, a book which Carroll
“The Irish name for a fairy dun,
a rath, which is etymologically
connected to a wraith.”272
According to the Concise
Dictionary of First Names, Rath
is an „old personal name
meaning ‘grace’ or
„In Carroll’s day it was a well-
known old Irish word for an
enclosure, usually a circular
earthen wall, serving as a fort
and place of residence for the
head of a tribe.“274
Outgrabe, the Narrator in „past tense of the verb A shrike seems to be „any of „But it fairly
Preterite of Mischmasch to OUTGRIBE. (It is numerous usually largely gray lost heart, and

Partridge, Pp. 186.
260 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 195.
261 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
262 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
Huxley, Francis. The Raven and the Writing Desk, Pp.65.
264 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 195.
265 “Mome,” Wikipedia Encyclopedia.
266 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
267 Carroll, Preface to Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There dated 1896, Pp. 171.
268 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
Partridge, Pp. 186.
Huxley, Francis. The Raven and the Writing Desk, Pp. 65.
Ibid., Pp. 134.
Ibid., Pp. 135.
273 “Reith,” Concise Dictionary of First Names.
274 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 195.
275 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
Verb connected with the old or brownish oscine birds [...] outgrabe in
“(perhaps of verb to GRIKE, or that have a hooked bill, feed despair.“280The
*grabe, SHRIKE, from which chiefly on insects, and often Hunting of the
*gribe, or are derived ‘shriek’ and impale their prey on thorns.“278 Snark, Fit 5,
*greabe)”276 ‘creak’). Etymologically, „perhaps from Verse 10.
or Adv. (see ‘Squeaked.’“277 Middle English *shrik, from
Chapter 2.1, Old English scrīc thrush; akin to
Humpty „‘outgribing’ is
Pp. 29 -30) Middle English shriken to
Dumpty something between
bellowing and
whistling, with a kind
of sneeze in the
Jabberwock, Lewis Carroll “The Anglo-Saxon Associations: “jabbing” – “a In a letter to
Noun in a letter to word ‘wocer’ or short straight boxing punch Mrs.
the editors of ‘wocor’ signifies delivered with the leading Chataway, the
a magazine ‘offspring’ or ‘fruit’. hand”283; “jatter” – “to shatter”, mother of one
desiring to be Taking ‘jabber’ in its “whacker” – “anything of his child-
named after ordinary acceptable of enormous.”284 friends, Carroll
the poem, at ‘excited and voluble The word “Jabberwocky” describes the
Girls’ Latin discussion,’ this would signifying “meaningless speech scene of the
School, give the meaning of or writing”285 has entered the Snark as „an
Boston ‘the result of much dictionary after being coined by island
excited Carroll. frequented by
discussion.’.”282 “WOCER, wocor [Plat. woker the Jubjub and
m; in earlier times proles, the
fructus; but now only usury, Bandersnatch –
rest; Frs. wokere m. usury; Dst. no doubt the
woeker m. usury; Ger. wucher very island
m: Ker. Ot. uuacher uuuocher n. where the
all kind of fruit: Wil. daz Jabberwock
uuocher sines ovezes the fruit of was slain.“
his fruit-trees: Moes. akran
fructus Dm. aager c. usury:
Swed. ocker n. usury: Icel. okr
n. foenxs, usura; okra
foenerare: Wel. occr, ocyr
usury: Ir. Gael. ocar m. usury.-
Some think it is allied to A.-S.
Eacan; Plat. oken, auchen;
Swed. oka, all three signifying
to increase, to augment. Lye
says from wæcan to take origin]
Offspring, produce, fruit, usury;
proles, soboles, fructus:- Wocor
eorδan tuddres produce of
earth’s progeny, Cd. 65. Ealle

Dolitsky, Pp. 17.
277 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 140.
278 “shrike,” Merriam-Webster Online.
279 Ibid.
280 Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, Fit 5, Verse 10.
281 Carroll, Through the Looking Glass..., Pp. 272.
282 Gardner, Annotated Alice. Pp. 195.
„jab,“ Merriam-Webster Online.
Partridge, Pp. 184.
285 “Jabberwocky.” Merriam-Webster Online.
pa wocre all the living beings,
Cd. 71:73.”286
Jubjub, “May form a grim pun on Mentioned in
Noun jugjug, imitative of the note of the Snark five
the euphonious nightingale, and times, in
may even blend jugjug with fit 4, verse 18,
hubbub.”287 fit 5, verses 8,
„Jujube - c.1400, from 9, 21 and 29.
M.L.[Medieval Latin] jujuba Here is a
(pl.), from L.L.[Late Latin] fragment from
zizyphum, from zizyphus, an verses 8 and 9:
Asiatic tree with datelike fruit, „The sound
from Gk. zizyphon, from Pers. so exactly
zayzafun. The meaning ‘soft recalled to his
candy with date-like flavor’ first mind/
recorded 1835.“288 A pencil that
squeaks on a
slate!/’Tis the
voice of the
Jubjub!’ he
And here is
verse 21:
„As to temper
the Jubjub’s a
desperate bird,/
Since it lives in
passion:/ Its
taste in
costume is
absurd--/ It is
ages ahead of
the fashion.“290
See also the
note on
Frumious, Carroll in the „take the two words “Frumious […] I used to think The
Adj. Preface to the ‘fuming’ and ‘furious’ was a bland of frumpish + Bandersnatch
Snark Make up your mind gloomy, with the adjectival also appeared
that you will say both suffix –ious.”292 “Frump, an in the Snark,
words, but leave it unattractive woman who wears where its
unsettled which you dowdy old-fashioned clothes. „frumious jaws
will first. Now open […] Originally denoting a went savagely
your mouth and speak. mocking speech or action, later snapping
If your thoughts incline sulkiness: probably from Dutch around.“294
ever so little towards verrompelen ‘wrinkle’.”293

286 Bosworth, Joseph. “wocer.” A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language. Pp. 472.
Patridge, Pp. 184-185.
288 “jujube.” Online Etymology Dictionary.
289 Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, Fit 5, Verses 8 and 9.
290 Ibid, Verse 21.
Partridge, Pp. 186.
„frump,“ Oxford English Dictionary.
294 Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, Fit 7, Verse 5.
‘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.’“291
Bander- “bandog, ‘a ferocious watch- The
snatch, Noun dog; a huge mastiff, a Bandersnatch
Molossus’, or less probably […] also appears in
bandar, Hindustani for Chapter 7,
‘monkey’.”295 where the King
„bandy (v.) 1577, ‘to strike says “a minute
back and forth,’ from Medieval goes by so
French bander, from root of fearfully quick.
band (2). The sense apparently You might as
evolved from ‘join together to well try to stop
oppose,’ to opposition itself, to a
‘exchanging blows,’ then Bandersnatch!“
metaphorically, to volleying in and „she
tennis. Bandy was a 17c. Irish runs so
game, precursor of field hockey, fearfully quick.
played with curved sticks, hence You might as
bandy-legged (1688).“296 well try to
catch a

This word also

appears in the
Snark, fit 7,
verses 3, 4 and
Also see the
note on
Vorpal, Carroll in a „I’m afraid I can’t “A blend, almost certainly;
Adj. letter to a explain ‘vorpal blade’ voracious + narwhal, I think. A
child-friend for you.“300 male narwhal […] is a dolphin-
familied cetacean with a long,
pointed tusk; the substitution of

291 Carroll, Preface to The Hunting of the Snark.

Patridge, Nonsense Words.., Pp. 185.
296 “bandy.” Online Etymology Dictionary.
297 Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass..., Pp. 283.
298 Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass..., Pp. 286.
299 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 195.
300 Ibid., Pp. 196.
Eric Partridge “Webster’s records p for wh may have been caused
vorpal as ‘now often by the p in torpedo, the electric
used with about the ray (fish, not beam).”301
sense of “keen- „Pale (noun) c.1330, ‘fence of
edged.”’”303 pointed stakes,’ from L. palus
"stake," related to pangere ‘to
fix or fasten [my emphasis].’“302
Manxome, “The word appears to combine
Adj. maniac + Manx (cat, with a
rudimentary tail) +
Manx cat, “a breed of cat that
has no tail.”305
„‘Manx’ was the Celtic name
for the isle of Man, hence the
word came to be used in
England for any-thing
pertaining to the island. Its
language was called Manx, the
inhabitants Manxmen, and so
Tumtum, “tummy, stomach.”307 “think of
Noun that quite inoucuous growth, the
bread-fruit tree.” 308 The
breadfruit is “a large round
starchy fruit of a tropical tree,
used as a vegetable and to make a
substitute for flour”.309
„A common colloquialism in
Carroll’s day, referring to the
sound of a stringed instrument,
especially when monotonously
Uffish, Carroll in a „A state of mind when “Uffish may combine uberous, “The Bellman
Adj. letter to Maud the voice is gruffish, ‘fruitful’ + officious in its now looked uffish,
Standen, a the manner roughish, rare sense ‘efficatious’ + the and wrinkled
child-friend, and the temper adjectival suffix –ish.”312 his brow.”314
in 1877 huffish.“311 Merriam-Webster dates
„huffish“, with an „h“, back to
Eric Partridge “Uffish thought seems
1755 and defines it as meaning
to mean ‘busy, deep
arrogant, sulky.313
and fruitful.’”315

Partridge, Pp. 187.
Partridge, Pp. 187.
302 “pale.” Online Etymology Dictionary.
„Manx cat.“ Oxford English Dictionary.
306 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 196.
Partridge, Pp. 185.
Partridge, Pp. 185.
„breadfruit,“ Oxford English Dictionary.
310 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 196.
311 Ibid.
Partridge, Pp. 187.
313 “huffish,” Merriam-Webster Online.
Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, Fit 4, Verse 1.
Partridge, Pp. 187.
Whiffling, Not a nonsense word at all.
Verb Dated back to 1598, „to emit or
produce a light whistling or
puffing sound.“316 Gardner
mentions it becoming a slang
term for being variable and
Tulgey, Carroll in a „I’m afraid I can’t “The tulgey wood […] suggests
Adj. letter to a explain […] ‘tulgey the presence of two or perhaps
child-friend wood’..318 all three of these terms: thick,
bulgy, bosky, with something of
the sense of each.”319
The meaning “thick, den-se,
dark“320 has emerged probably
due to Carroll, and I have only
found it in Wiktionary, an open
content dictionary online.
Burbled, Carroll in a „If you take the three A word dated back to the 14th
Verb. letter to Maud verbs ‘bleat’, ‘murmur’ century, meaning „to make a
Standen, a and ‘warble,’ and bubbling sound“322. Gardner
child-friend, select the bits I have mentions it probably being a
in 1877 underlined, it certainly combination of ‘burst’ and
makes ‘burble’: though ‘bubble’, also being used to
I am afraid I can’t mean „to perplex, confuse, or
distinctly remember muddle“, and that in modern
having made it in that aeronautics it refers to
way.“321 „turbulence which develops
when the air is not flowing
smoothly around an object.“323
Galumphing Has entered the English
, Verb dictionary after Carroll had
coined the word, „perhaps a
blend of ‘gallop’ and
Beamish, Not a nonsense word. „But oh,
Adj. According to Gardner, „the beamish
Oxford English Dictionary nephew,
traces it back to 1530 as a beware of the
variant of ‘beaming’, meaning day“327, in the
‘shining brightly, radiant.’ “325 Snark, fit 3,
„beam O.E. beam origi-nally verse 10.
‘living tree,’ but by 1000 also
‘post, ship’s timber,’ from
W.Gmc. *baumoz (cf. O.Fris.
bam, Du. boom, Ger. Baum
"tree"), perhaps from PIE

316 “whiffle,” Merriam-Webster Online.

317 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 196.
318 Ibid.
Partridge, Pp. 187.
320 “tulgey,” Wiktionary.
321 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 196.
322 “burble.” Merriam-Webster Online.
323 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 196.
324 “galumph.” Oxford English Dictionary.
325 Gardner, Annotated Alice, Pp. 197.
327 Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark.
[Proto-Indo-European] verb
root *bu- ‘to grow.’ Meaning of
‘ray of light’ developed in O.E.,
proba-bly because it was used
by Bede to render L. colum-na
lucis, Biblical ‘pillar of fire.’
Nautical sense of ‘one of the
horizontal transverse timbers
holding a ship together’ is from
1627, hence ‘greatest breadth of
a ship,’ and slang broad in the
beam ‘wide-hipped’ (of
persons). The verb meaning
‘emit rays of light’ is from
c.1440; sense of ‘to smile
radiantly’ is from 1893; that of
‘to direct radio transmissions’ is
from 1927. To be on the beam
(1941) was originally an
aviator’s term for ‘to follow the
course indica-ted by a radio
beam.’ Lewis Carroll may have
thought he was inventing
beamish in ‘Jabberwocky,’ but
it is attested from 1530.“326
Frabjous, Eric Partridge “Its general sense is Partridge thinks “perhaps it
Adj. ‘excellent, pre-eminent, blends fragrant (or even fair =
surpassing.’”328 beautiful) + joyous.”329
Others consider it to be
composed of ‘fabulous’ and
Callooh, Albert L. Callooh comes from “Merely varying hurroo!
Callay Blackwell and the Greek kalos, hooray!, recalls Lear’s excla-
Interjection Carlton S. meaning beautiful, fair mations (e.g. Timballo.)”332
Hyman or good.331 The calloo is a species of arctic
duck wintering in Northern
Scotland, named so after the
sound of its evening call.333

Chortled, „To sing or chant exultantly, to

Verb laugh or chuckle especially in
satisfaction or exultation“334.
Has entered the English
dictionary after being coined by
Carroll, it is seen etymologi-
cally as a probable blend of
‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’.335

326 “beam.” Online Etymology Dictionary.

Partridge, Pp. 187.
330 “frabjous.” Unabridged.
331 Gardner, Annotated Alice, pp. 197.
Partridge, pp. 185.
333 Ibid.
334 “chortle.” Merriam-Webster Online.
Partridge, Pp. 187.
This table suggests how the portmanteau words in Jabberwocky create ambiguous
meaning. The humor of Carroll’s attempt to “sell us” a fixed meaning is revealed, for the
‘literal’ English of the stanza clearly cannot be reduced to: “It was evening, and the smooth
active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side: all unhappy were the parrots;
and the grave turtles squeaked out.”336
Humpty Dumpty suggests that verbs are the most difficult portmanteau words, a fact
also implied by them being least in number in Jabberwocky:
„They’ve a temper, some of them - particularly verbs: they’re the proudest - adjectives
you can do anything with, but not verbs - however, I can manage the whole lot of
them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!“337

Here is a possible answer given by Hofstadter to the question of why there are a lot
fewer nonsense verbs than nouns or adjectives (Hofstadter uses the term symbols for
„hypothetical neural complexes, neural modules, neural packets, neural networks,
multineuron units.“338):
„There are characteristic differences between the kinds of triggering patterns of
symbols for verbs and symbols for nouns, of course, which means that they may be
physically somewhat differently organized. For instance, nouns might have fairly
localized symbols, while verbs and prepositions might have symbols with many
‘tentacles’ reaching all around the cortex; or any number of other possibilities.“339

Humpty Dumpty’s „impenetrability“ seems a lot less disconcerting if we interpret it as

suggesting the impossibility of assigning a precise, unambiguous meaning to portmanteau
words, as well as the inability of portmanteau nonsense to build a clear story line.
I have already partially analyzed the first stanza of Jabberwocky in the previous
chapter. In the first column of the table of portmanteau words, I’ve included the part(and, in
one case, parts) of speech each word is identified to belong to, due to its morphological
structure or due to the sentential context it is situated in. I trust these attributions are fairly
obvious, and since their demonstration is easily found in studies which use Jabberwocky in
the investigation of the creation of meaning or understanding (the Dolitsky or the Trabasso
and Soh studies), I will leave this out for reasons of space.
I have also mentioned that I only consider the first stanza of Jabberwocky to qualify as
portmanteau nonsense, despite portmanteau words appearing throughout the entire poem,
although it is worth pointing out that their number is drastically reduced, in stanzas two to six,

336 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella...., pp. 141.

337 Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass..., Pp. 269.
338 Ibid., Pp. 349.
339 Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach, Pp. 361.
to five, four or less per stanza, compared to the amount of eleven portmanteau words in the
first stanza.
The main argument which excludes the rest of the poem from the category of
portmanteau nonsense is the text’s ability to build clear, recognizable codes, which
portmanteau nonsense, as a rule, avoids doing. In the case of Jabberwocky, the frames built by
stanzas two to six manage to construct, along with the knowledge brought by the reader, a
hermeneutic code (“beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that
catch!”) and a proairetic code, that of the young hero and the beast which it fights and kills,
both of these codes familiar from several fairy tales and ballads340, and both participating in
building the story line which Alice also recognizes (“somebody killed something, that’s clear,
at any rate”341).
Tenniel had made two illustrations for Jabberwocky, one of the first stanza, and one
for the rest of the poem. He seems to have sensed that each was worthy of a separate
treatment. His drawing of the Jabberwock was initially meant to be at the frontispiece of the
entire book342, but Carroll decided not to, fearing that it might scare children away.

John Tenniel’s Illustration of 1st Stanza343 John Tenniel’s Illustration of the Jabberwock344

Massegú, Pp. 26.
Carroll, TTLG, Pp. 197.
Huxley, Francis. Pp. 68.
Carroll, Through the Looking Glass…
Ibid., Pp. 198.
Dolitsky describes the proairetic code explicitly: „ boy goes to kill dragon/ father
warns him of dangers/ boy meets dragon and dangers / boy returns victorious / father is
joyous“345 and confirms its recognition by readers. The Trabasso and Soh study also signals
the readers’ recognition of this code, communicated at the level of whole poem
understanding: „All six readers drew similar morals of challenges and overcoming danger, in
line with knowledge of heroic myths.“346 Here is the whole poem understanding as explained
by one of the readers:
“This is a poem about a boy whose father… this is a poem about a boy who goes off to
find a dangerous beast. And although his father has warned him about this beast, he
goes out to look for it. He goes in search of this beast and when he least expects it, the
beast comes to him, and he manages to kill the beast and bring it home in triumph.
And although his father has told him to beware the beast, his father is very proud of
him when he brings it back and when he comes home. And it’s about you can
overcome the most dangerous and scary and frightening creatures.”347

The fact that this level of understanding always omitted the first and last stanza348 are
supportive of my argument that the first and last stanza are unable to build any clear codes,
and therefore unable to contribute to the story line and build this level of understanding,
which makes them significantly different from the rest of the poem. They are, however,
integrated into the rest of the poem by being later on “claimed” as frames merging into the
symbolic code of the dark, dangerous wood representing untamed nature. The part of the text
which is not nonsense, clearly mentioning a wood and a dangerous confrontation taking place
in it, allows the slithy toves, the borogoves and the mome raths to merge into its code as its
potential inhabitants.
The conclusion of the Dolitsky study is that „meaning accrues to a word both as a
phonetic entity as well as a contextual one. […] Meaning may be different depending on
whether the task is ‘tell the story’ or ‘define the word.’”349 The recorded understanding of the
text changes when the readers are asked to ‘tell the story’. They then reproduce the proairetic
code using more or less details, usually making use of clear, existing words and leaving the
portmanteau words out.
The Trabasso and Soh study comes to a similar conclusion. When their participants are
asked to reproduce their understanding at the level of the entire poem, they stop referring to

Dolitsky, Pp. 20.
Trabasso, T. and S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives."

the nonsense words and the first stanza, and create a narrative structure with „a setting, goal,
attempts, outcomes and evaluations.“350
One of the most famous narratives reproducing these same hermeneutic and proairetic
codes is perhaps the legend of Saint George and the dragon. Saint George was a Christian
Martyr who suffered at or near Lydda, also known as Diospolis in Palestine, and lived
probably before Constantine351, therefore before 274 or 288 AD352. The legend of Saint
George killing the Dragon, however can only be traced as far back as the 12th or 13th
century353. The best known form of the legend is the one made popular by the "Legenda
Aurea", a late medieval bestselling collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine dated
back to 1275354, and translated into English by William Caxton in the 15th century355.
Considering the “unscrupulous freedom with which any story, even when pagan in origin,
was appropriated by the early hagiographers to the honour of a popular saint”356, it is very
possible that the legend of St. George killing the dragon was adapted from an older, pagan
Other codes which are built and interwoven with these two in Jabberwocky are the
referential code of medieval knighthood (taking one’s sword and fearlessly facing danger and
death), and the symbolic code of wild, dangerous, unknown and untamed nature (built by the
dark wood and its flame-eyed inhabitant). We instantly recognize the elements of this
traditional narrative, because the codes are part of a cultural knowledge we all share. The code
of medieval knighthood is familiar to us, among others, due to the legend of King Arthur and
the Knights of the Round Table. The symbolic code of dark, dangerous nature appears in
several fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, where it is also built
by the wood and one of its dangerous inhabitants, the wolf or the witch.
There are several other elements contributing to building our cultural knowledge of
these codes, legends and fairy tales have been translated into several languages and adapted to
various media, but I will refrain to only briefly mentioning the ones above as obvious sources,
and not go into any more detail about them.

Trabasso, T. and S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
Responses to Narratives."
Thurston, Herbert. "St. George." The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Herbermann, Charles, and Georg Grupp. "Constantine the Great." The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Thurston, Herbert. "St. George." The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Paul Halsall, “Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend...” Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
Thurston, Herbert. "St. George." The Catholic Encyclopedia.
3. From verbal to visual nonsense – nonsense, narrative and the diegesis

It is certainly not an easy task to apply linguistic concepts to the analysis of film.
Applying exclusively linguistic concepts and claiming to have covered all important aspects
of a film would obviously be inappropriate and misleading. Although semiology studies film
as a system of signs, as a system, film differs greatly from language. As Themerson, among
many others, points out:
“The syntactical relation of images to images is not the same as that of words to
words. An image is not exactly the same as a noun, a movement is not exactly the
same as a verb, and a collage is not exactly the same as a statement.”357

Whereas in language all signs are based on an arbitrary and conventional relationship
between signifier and signified, or, in Pierce’s terms, they are all symbols, in film we
encounter other types of signs as well interacting with each other in complex ways. Peter
Wollen, borrowing from C.S. Pierce, suggests in his book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema
(1969) cinematic signs to be of three orders:
“The Icon: a sign in which the signifier represents the signified mainly by its similarity
to it, its likeness;
The Index: which measures a quality not because it is identical to it but because it has
an inherent relationship to it;
The Symbol: an arbitrary sign in which the signifier has neither a direct or an indexical
relationship to the signified, but rather represents it through convention.”358

Approaching visual nonsense from this perspective would clearly require much more
time and space than the current format allows. Therefore, I have decided to focus on only one
facet of visual nonsense - narrative and the aspect of the diegesis, the spatio-temporal
universe. This chapter will explore the narrative and diegetic possibilities of verbal and
cinematic nonsense.
The term diegesis (diégèse) has been traced back to the French film theorist Anne
Souriau359, but has first been introduced into theoretical discourse by her father, Etienne
Souriau, in his essay “La structure de l’univers filmique et le vocabulaire de la filmologie”,
published in 1951 in the Revue International de Filmologie360, where Souriau differentiated
between the diegetic universe and the screen-universe in film.

Themerson. The Urge to Create Visions. Pp. 61.
Monaco, „The language of film: signs and syntax,“ How to Read a Film, Pp. 133.
Souriau, Vocabulaire d'esthétique, Pp.581.
Souriau, Die Struktur des filmishen Universums…, Pp. 140; Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, Pp.
The diegesis is, according to Souriau, the spatio-temporal universe in which the story
takes place361, “eine Gesamtheit von Wesen, Dingen, Tatsachen, Ereignissen, Phänomenen
und Inhalten in einem raum-zeitlichen Rahmen (a sum of beings, things, facts, events,
phenomena and contents in a spatio-temporal frame).”362
The term diegesis was taken over by Gérard Genette in his famous Narrative
Discourse. His text might help us elucidate how a diegesis is built by a literary text, and,
particularly, whether it can be built by a nonsense text.
What we know about the diegesis from Souriau, and what Genette also takes over, is
that the diegesis is the spatio-temporal universe in which the story takes place. In his book
Genette proposes the use of the term story when referring to narrative content, and narrative
when referring to the narrative text itself. I have used the term story line in this work
previously, meaning the summary of the narrative content. Genette rightfully draws attention
to the fact that the narrative text is the source of the story:
“It is thus the narrative, and that alone, that informs us […] both of the events that it
recounts and of the activity that supposedly gave birth to it. In other words, our
knowledge of the two (the events and the action of writing) must be indirect,
unavoidably mediated by the narrative discourse. […] Story and narrating thus exist
for me only by means of the intermediary of the narrative.”363

However, things become more problematic when he goes on to say that “reciprocally
the narrative […] can only be such to the extent that it tells a story, without which it would
not be narrative (like, let us say, Spinoza’s Ethics) […] As narrative, it lives by its
relationship to the story that it recounts.”364
Genette seems to say that a story is created by a narrative text, and, at the same time, a
text is narrative because it recounts a story. But here is a more accurate definition we can find
in his text: “any narrative […] is a linguistic production undertaking to tell of one or several
events, it is perhaps legitimate to treat it as the development […] of a verbal form, in the
grammatical sense of the term: the expansion of a verb. I walk, Pierre has come are for me
minimal forms of narrative.”365 And in his Narrative Discourse Revisited, he says “for me, as
soon as there is an action or an event, even a single one, there is a story.”366 Barthes also
pointed out the connection between narrative and the verb: “Though afforded with the original
(often highly complex) signifiers, we in effect recognize in narratives, enlarged and

Souriau, Die Struktur des filmishen Universums…, Pp. 144.
Ibid., pp. 141.
Genette, Narrative Discourse, Pp. 28-29.
Ibid., Pp. 29.
Ibid., Pp. 30.
Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, Pp. 19.
transformed in proportion, the main categories of the verb: tenses, aspects, modes,
It is interesting to consider my typology of nonsense at the level of multiple linguistic
signs from the perspective of their ability to create a diegesis and tell a story. The
differentiation is easiest to make when taking Genette’s observation into account, the vital
presence of a verb as predicate/an action/an event for the diegesis. Looking at the graph of
nonsense at the level of multiple linguistic signs again, the diegetic and narrative possibilities
of nonsense seem to decrease the further up we go on the graph.
At the lowest level, in the case of semantic nonsense, the individual linguistic signs are
intact, as is the syntactic structure. We can therefore easily recognize the presence of actions/
verbs as predicates in that case. The men and women in Lear’s limericks always do
something, even if they are merely sitting in a tree, or opening a window. This last case is
perhaps a nice example of a minimal semantic nonsense narrative:

“There was an old man of Spithead,

Who opened the window, and said,—
‘Fil-jomble, fil-jumble,
That doubtful old man of Spithead.“368

The text “Fil-jomble, fil-jumble,/ fil-rumble-come-tumble!” is not a narrative, since it

contains no recognizable action. It is the action of it being said, as well the action of the
opening of the window, which both make the limerick a narrative.
In the case of morphological nonsense the correct individual signified are always
decodable, which means we also have access to the recognition of action/verbs as predicates.
Morphological nonsense can be diegetic, just as semantic nonsense. Bichsel’s example from
earlier can be decoded back into “am Morgen blieb der alte Mann lange im Bett liegen, um
neun läutete der Wecker, der Mann stand auf und stellte sich auf dem Teppich…“, which is
obviously a narrative text.

Barthes, „Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative“, Pp. 100.
368 Lear. Complete Nonsense. Pp. 108.
The point when recognizing an action becomes really problematic is the case of
portmanteau nonsense, where a syntactic structure is still present. Consequentially, nonsense
words can be recognized and categorized as verbs, although their meaning is ambiguous. Is
”the mome raths outgrabe” a minimal narrative which could develop this outgribing in a
diegetic universe of mome raths? If we say no, surely someone will come and develop the
outgribing of mome raths over pages and pages of text. But will that still be portmanteau
nonsense, and if so, will that be a narrative? I seem to be stuck in a vicious circle of
ambiguous verbs.
It is perhaps helpful to look at the entire first stanza of Jabberwocky:
„‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”369

A few verbs which function as predicates can be recognized in this text: was/were,
gyre, gimble and outgrabe (unless the mome raths were outgrabe, in which case the last word
would be an adverb and fall out of this classification). But do these verbs take us as far as to
say that we recognize actions, or events? The verb “to be” contributes to the setting of an
unclear time or space, reminiscent of the opening of narratives, and, as to action, I could at
most claim that something was turning round and round. I probably only feel inclined to claim
this because “to gyre” is an existing word, but if I am to refer to portmanteau nonsense in
general (keeping in mind other examples such as “the gostak distims the doshes“370 and „in
chemming speans the stolls crealed high/ Blissing and dolling in tincting runnels“371), I
believe it is more appropriate to restrict myself to saying that it only manages to evoke an
atmosphere rather than narrate any events.
If we look at Carroll’s claim that the passage can be rephrased as “it was evening, and
the smooth active badgers were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side: all unhappy were
the parrots; and the grave turtles squeaked out”372, we realize not only that he downplays the
ambiguity of the words, but that he also inserts actions. The version recorded by the Trabasso
and Soh study with respect to the understanding of the first stanza of Jabberwocky seems to
be somewhat closer to the truth:
„Once upon a time, in a faraway place, near the water in a fantastic and special land
where there were strange and wonderful creatures, that’s where the story takes

369 Carroll, Pp. 191-197.

370 Themerson, On Nonsense & On Logic-Fiction. Pp. 3.
371 Mc Arthur, Tom. Pp. 34-35.
372 Carroll, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch, Pp. 141.
373 Trabasso, T., S. Soh. "Using Think-Aloud Protocols to Reveal Readers’ Understanding of and
The reader sees the stanza only as descriptive of the setting of the story, according to
him it does not actually narrate any events.
Genette used a simple example for his minimal narratives. He said: “Nothing more
than ‘The king died.’ That, it seems to me, is enough for a headline. And if the crowd wants
details, it will have them.”374 Obviously, his example of a minimal narrative is a story line
which has the ability of being developed into a story. But what about a text which cannot
create any story line, for example the first stanza of Jabberwocky? The logical conclusion is
admitting that it is not a narrative text. This conclusion can be well supported by the fact that
asemantic nonsense has long been referred to as “sound poetry”, as well as by the fact that the
performative aspect is of high importance for both sound poetry and baragouin. It is
important to point out that samples of baragouin are rarely available in written form. For
instance, Chaplin’s German baragouin in The Great Dictator was not included in the script,
but simply improvised by him during filming.375 Also, portmanteau nonsense seems to mostly
occur in versified form. The claim of its ability to create an atmosphere is indicative of its
position in the vicinity of sound poetry, musical composition and performative act.
Verbs functioning as predicates with a clear, set meaning are vital for building of a
narrative. Portmanteau nonsense cannot produce any narratives, minimal or of any other kind,
but only has the ability of mimicking them due to its recognizable syntactic structure. We
cannot summarize portmanteau nonsense in a way that would convey actions in an intelligible
way. This is due to the fact that portmanteau nonsense is unable to build the proairetic code
vital in recognizing the presence of a narrative.
An interesting question arises at this point: What is the relationship between story and
diegesis? Does a text ‘pretending’ to tell a story already build a diegesis, a spatio-temporal
universe, or is the diegesis inextricably coupled with the story? Is the building of a diegesis by
the text dependent on the successful building of the proairetic code, or can it be built
independently of this code? Is “’twas brillig” sufficient to build a diegesis?
“Once upon a time” is sufficient for constructing a fairy tale world. Descriptions such
as the one below, from Dickens, clearly indicate that the diegesis can be built by the text
independently of the proairetic code:
“Here and there, a low dingy public-house; long rows of broken and patched windows
expose plants […]; and shops for the purchase of rags, bones, old iron, and kitchen-
stuff, vie in cleanliness with the bird-fanciers and rabbit-dealers.”376

Responses to Narratives." Pp. 542.

Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, Pp. 20.
Chaplin, “The Great Dictator (1940) – Trivia.” The Internet Movie Database.
Dickens, “Seven Dials”.
The passage by Dickens builds a world but no story. Certainly the text belongs to a
narrative, and in its case the story is built by other passages merging into the proairetic code,
but if we consider this text on its own, independently of its context, we can clearly see that it
manages to build a diegetic universe all on its own. Burch mentions non-narrative fictional
writing in the nouveau roman, particularly virtualité, passage à l’acte and achèvement (in
Claude Bremond’s terms), as texts which consist only of descriptions and exclude even the
smallest components of narrative377. Therefore, a text creating a diegesis does not necessarily
have to create a story. This applies to nonsense text as well.
In the case of portmanteau nonsense, no codes can be built, but there is a level of
frames, the most obvious of which is the recognizable syntactic structure. This level of frames
is where the diegesis is built, despite of the fact that the portmanteau words have no clear, set
meanings. I will explain to you how this happens.
The syntactic structure provides the key to answering the question of when and how
the diegesis is formed in portmanteau nonsense. The difference between portmanteau
nonsense and regular language is that the first is composed of words with various possible
meanings, which are therefore ambiguous and cannot lead to the building of codes. But the
vital similarity between them is the ability to identify the signifiers as parts of speech. Being
able to recognize subjects and predicates in portmanteau nonsense is already sufficient in
building a diegesis. By reading “the stolls crealed high” we understand something has
happened, we do not exactly understand what (which is why portmanteau nonsense cannot be
narrative), but something, anything can only happen somewhere, and can only happen in time,
or, to rephrase this: something can only happen in a spatio-temporal universe, whether we
know what it is, or not.
Unlike the narrative, a rudimentary form of diegesis does not need the level of codes
in order to be formed, the level of frames suffices in order to build it. I therefore believe that
the diegesis is built closer to the syntagmatic level of the text, the level of words, than the
story. According to my argument, there can be a diegesis without any clear story, but there
can be no story without a diegesis, for we can only conceive of events in a kind of spatio-
temporal universe.
Asemantic nonsense clearly excludes the possibility of building either diegesis or
story, since in its case the level of the signified is completely absent and the building of
frames or codes impossible. In texts of asemantic nonsense we can recognize neither space
nor time nor action.

Burch, Pp. 19.
Here is a visual illustration of the relationship I have established among narration,
diegesis and nonsense text:

Invented language not

No narrative ASEMANTIC4 sound poetry resembling any existing
NONSENSE language
and no diegesis

No narrative, NONSENSE
but one diegesis
is possible

MORPHOLOGICAL Invented/modified
charabia, galimatias language resembling
Narrative is existing language
More diegeses
are possible
1 semantic pataquès

SEMANTIC language.
0 1 2 3 4

Genette develops a theory of narrative levels in the attempt to systematize the

traditional notion of “embedding”, and names the levels using the term diegesis
(extradiegetic, intradiegetic and metadiegetic378). In his theory the relationship of multiple
diegeses is described as a hierarchical embedding, a kind of Pupe Rousse, with metadiegesis
inside the first diegesis, meta-metadiegesis inside the metadiegesis, and so on (also with more
than one metadiegesis being possible, for example in the case when characters from the first
diegesis tell each other stories). This relationship between diegeses and narrative levels is
based on the fact that the embedded narrative is “narratively subordinate to the embedding
narrative”379, the latter ‘tells’ the former ‘into existence’.
Distinguishing between different diegeses in a text is therefore possible only as long as
the text is also a narrative, otherwise how could one level ‘tell’ other levels into existence?
When the text is a narrative the identification of multiple narrative levels is the indicator of

Genette, Narrative Discourse, Pp. 228.
Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, Pp. 90.
more diegeses. This has as a consequence the existence of only one diegesis in the case of
portmanteau nonsense, since portmanteau nonsense cannot be a narrative. The more
nonsensical a text is, i.e. the closer it comes to asemantic nonsense or to resembling a
nonexistent language, the less diegeses it can create.
Looking back at the descriptive example from Dickens, one is struck by its apparent
cinematic quality. Noël Burch maintains, in an essay entitled Narrative/Diegesis –
Thresholds, Limits, that film can be diegetic without being a narrative, an idea very much in
accordance with my argument concerning texts. Burch argues that the “true seat of cinema’s
power of fascination”380 resides in the triggering of the diegetic process, and not at all in the
presence of a narrative structure. He suggests that the impact of cinematic diegesis derives
from its involving almost exclusively iconic signification.
Burch gives the example of a film by Michael Snow, la Région Centrale, as an
illustration of the fact that the diegesis is not dependent on narration, but also as an illustration
of the limits of diegetic production in film. Consisting of images filmed by a camera anchored
to a mechanism which enabled it to turn 360 degrees, ‘crane’ itself skyward and circle in all
directions, the film suggests “that the minimal generation of diegetic process depends neither
on narrative, nor synch sound originating in the image, nor even on pro-filmic movement, but
can be generated by the image alone.”381
Burch is of the opinion that the diegetic effect in literature is achieved in a different
way than in cinema, and that in literature “the narrative and diegetic processes tend to fuse,
causing, of course, the frequent heuristic confusion between them.”382 This is reminiscent of
Barthes’ description of the stereophonic nature of the multiple codes competing in the
creation of meaning in a text.
What Souriau actually does in his 1951 essay, “La structure de l’univers filmique et le
vocabulaire de la filmologie”, is describe a theory of levels in film, setting seven levels: the
afilmic reality with its sub-set of profilmic reality (including everything on the set, put in front
of the camera, etc), the filmographic reality(the dimension of images on the filmstrip,
montage takes place on this level), the filmophanic reality or the reality of projecting on the
screen (including the time of projection), the diegesis, the reality of spectatorial
facts(subjective time of the spectator, experiencing a film as “too slow”) and the creatorial
level.383 All but the afilmic reality and the creatorial level he considers part of the filmic

Burch, Pp. 16.
Ibid., Pp. 28.
Ibid., Pp. 20.
Souriau, Die Struktur des Filmischen Universums…, Pp. 146-155.
universe.384 What literary theory generally calls paratext and Genette qualifies as
extradiegetic, Souriau subdivides into several levels for film, only one of which he terms
diegesis. He does not go further into exploring the potential of the diegesis to create more
diegeses, leaving this task to Genette.

3.1. Jabberwocky in film

In my analysis of Jabberwocky films, I will focus only on the narrative and diegetic
aspects which seem to contribute to a nonsensical character, and compare them to their
equivalents in the case of the poem. I have chosen to look at two films, to my knowledge the
only pre-2009 films outside of films made for television whose reference to the poem is
explicitly set in their title. One of these Jabberwockies was directed by the Czech Surrealist
Jan Švankmajer and released in 1971385, and the other Jabberwocky, released in 1977, was
directed by Terry Gilliam386.
The propounded analysis is based on a close reading of these films, my major
assumption being that despite film’s functioning with more than merely symbolic (linguistic)
signs, narrative film builds the story and all its codes in a fashion similar to narrative texts. It
is therefore, reasonable to assert that a type of analysis suitable to literary narrative texts can
be also applied to films. Since Švankmajer ‘s Jabberwocky proves not to be a narrative film at
all, my analysis of it is far more limited than that of Gilliam’s film, and is restricted to looking
at the way in which Švankmajer’s film manages to build a diegesis. I have chosen to not
include several biographical details regarding the authors, although doing so would
doubtlessly enrich our understanding of their work. Due to lack of space, I trust the two films
already speak so strongly in contributing to the theoretical ideas developed here, that the
absence of further context of the films will not bear too heavily upon the reader in
understanding the goals of this thesis.
Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky was first released in March 1977 in the UK. The script
was written by both Terry Gilliam and Charles Alverson. This film is clearly a narrative, and
keeps the same story line as the second part of Carroll’s poem: a young man kills a dangerous
monster. It goes even further to keeping the story line typical of some fairy tales belonging to
this same proairetic code, namely, in the end the hero receives the princess’ hand and half the
kingdom. The diegetic world of the film also remains true to the codes created in the second

Ibid., Pp. 154.
„Žvahlav aneb šatičky Slaměného Huberta” (Jabberwocky, or Straw Hubert’s Clothes) (1971), Krátký
Film, Prague, Colour, 35 mm. Filmography from Dark Alchemy ed. by Peter Hames.
Jabberwocky, Dir. by Terry Gilliam.
part of the poem, the referential code of medieval knighthood and the symbolic code of the
dangerous, unknown nature.
Let me first have a look at the film’s diegeses. The first diegesis is introduced by an
extradiegetic voice setting the time to the “middle of the Dark Ages”, an inversion
foreshadowing more word-play to come. Static images of paintings by Pieter Bruegel and
Hieronymus Bosch387 which the camera moves over eventually fade into the moving images
of a village. It is interesting how the static images are easily seen as part of the same diegetic
universe as the moving images, and the film returns to this in the end, where the hero and the
princess ride off into the static image of a sunset. Although adding a self-referential touch to
the film, the images have no problem merging as a part of the diegetic universe. There are
several metalepses starting from the first diegesis, usually due to the princess becoming self-
referential. An example would be: “But I want to marry a prince. I'm supposed to marry a
prince./ That's why I wait in this tower, just like all the books say to do.”388 I will list more
examples of metalepses later on, when discussing self-referentiality.
There is a metadiegesis in the first diegesis, which is that of Lewis Carroll’s poem
being performed as an ambulatory puppet show. All stanzas but the first, which is told in the
beginning of the film by an extradiegetic voice, are narrated by means of a puppet-theatre in
separate bits throughout the film. The metadiegesis mirrors the diegesis since the two have
identical story lines, although the diegesis is far more elaborate. The climax of the story, the
news of the hero having killed the Jabberwock is the most obvious point of this diegetic
overlap, since the moment it is narrated in the puppet-show coincides with the moment it is
narrated in the first diegesis:
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy
-Oh, frabjous day! -The monster's dead!
The monster's dead!”389

Interestingly, Gilliam would have liked a metalepsis between these two diegeses as
well. He had supposedly asked Alverson to include a scene where the hero, Dennis Cooper,
would have a dialogue with one of the puppets, but that seemed impossible to Alverson at the
“From my point of view as first writer, the writing process was one of almost total
enjoyment. It got a bit frustrating when Gilliam asked the impossible (to me, at that

Parts of the Hell panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych by Bosch (which can be seen in
Laurinda Dixon’s book on Bosch), other fragments from Bruegel. The film does not mention the exact
paintings quoted but Gilliam repeatedly references these two painters in his interviews.
Jabberwocky. Dir. by Gilliam. Written by Alverson and Gilliam. 00:27:08.
Ibid., 01:38:16.
time) of me, such as creating a dialogue between Dennis and one of the ambulatory
puppetshow’s puppets. I could probably do it now, but then it seemed impossible.”390

I have mentioned the story line as being the youth killing the monster, getting the girl
and half the kingdom, but if we have a closer look at the story, things become more
complicated. The overarching story line is subverted by all possible intradiegetic means,
nearly every turning point of the story is an accident or a coincidence, and the ending,
although nicely following the cliché of the code with the hero marrying the princess, is not
what the hero wants at all.
Let me give you a more detailed idea of what I mean. The hero’s father renounces the
hero, Dennis Cooper, because he is more interested in business than in craftsmanship, so
Dennis leaves his village to go to the city and find work. He is in love with a fisherman’s
daughter, Griselda, a fat, unattractive girl who pays no attention to him. Dennis hopes to be
able to make himself a situation in order to come back and marry her. At this point the
overarching story line starts being subverted at the same time as it is built:
Dennis only manages to get inside the city walls because a guard needing to ease
himself has left his post. He becomes a knight’s squire because he’s hungrily running after a
turnip that fell out of a merchant’s basket, and thus accidently throws over a squire carrying
an armor, so Dennis ends up having to carry the armor for him. While trying to escape the
guards who want to put him in prison for two nights due to disturbing public order, he
accidentally enters the princess’ chamber while she is naked and bathing, and she welcomes
him heartily thinking he is the prince she had been waiting for. He only escapes death after
being captured by the angry mob of fanatics who want to make a religious sacrifice of him,
because many think it unfair that he would get all the pain and they wouldn’t, so a man of the
mob releases him and ties himself to the catapult and puts himself on fire. One point which is
perhaps most absurd in the entire story (most other events can be seen as accidental or
coincidental) is when the knights start playing hide and seek instead of fighting in the
tournament, in order to choose a winner. Dennis goes off as a squire with the winning knight,
who is looking to fight the monster. The winner knight is killed by the black knight, who sent
by the church and city merchants in order to prevent the killing of the monster, because its
death would be bad for business (since several refugee inhabitants would leave the city once
the countryside would be safe again). The black knight is killed by a half-dead Jabberwock,
which in turn gets its deathblow by being accidentally pierced by Dennis’ sword when it
attacks him. Dennis is then hailed as the one who has killed the beast. He is basically forced

Alverson, Charles. „Charles Alverson writes…“. Dreams. Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky.
into marrying the princess, and gets half the kingdom, although Griselda was the one he
would have still wanted to marry.
Surely such a story is not what someone expects when hearing that a hero kills a
dangerous beast, marries the princess and gets half the kingdom, which is why most plot
descriptions of the film include extra details signaling that viewers should expect the
unexpected, or a “Pythonesque humor.”391
Although the very rough story line indicates that the familiar code of action is
successfully created by the film, the detailed description of the story signalizes how the
detailed narrative actually often functions in a way fitting my description of semantic
nonsense. Frames merge either into a code of logic and conventionality, or into its opposite.
Events which strike us as accidental or surprising, are usually the ones which merge into the
opposing code: knights playing hide-and-seek, the fanatics thinking it unfair that Dennis gets
all the pain, the princess acting as though she were unaware of her nakedness in front of un
unknown man, the monster “falling” on Dennis’ sword, Dennis being reluctant to marry the
beautiful princess rather than an unfriendly, repulsive Griselda etc.
Semantic nonsense takes place in other parts of the narrative as well, it is not confined
to the frames merging into the code of action. Here are some examples of more semantic
nonsense in the narrative: The princess is working on a tapestry, particularly, on the portion
where “the king is eating his horse on the 98th day of the siege”392. Dennis finds his father
clearly on his deathbed, surrounded by a priest, holding a cross, and when the father barely
manages to say to him, gasping, “I’m going to…”, Dennis finishes his sentence with “throw
up?”393 A man sells hot roasted rats on a stick as though they were hotdogs or popcorn, and a
little boy buys one, eager to eat it.394 The city pub is called the “Queen’s Hemorrhoids”395.The
Herald presents the King solemnly and with excruciating slowness as “Bruno the
Questionable, son of Olaf the Loud… great grandnephew of Emperor Otto the Bent,
Conqueror of Freedonia396, … Past Grand Master of the Royal Order of Lowndes Victor,
Savior of Wales….” and adds in the end, in the lowest tone of voice as if it were least
important, and only after the King’s request, “…and King.”397 Another forefather of the King

“Plot Summary for Jabberwocky.” IMDb.
Terry Gilliam had been a member of the Monthy Python group, and his first film bears many
similarities to Monty Python work, especially to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was created
only a few years before Jabberwocky and co-directed by Gilliam and Terry Jones.
Jabberwocky. Dir. by Gilliam. Written by Alverson and Gilliam. 00:26:19.
Ibid., 00:09:36.
Ibid., 00:43:50.
Ibid., 00:47:54.
Freedonia is a reference to a Marx Brothers film from 1933, Duck Soup, where it was used to refer
to a fictional country in Europe.
Jabberwocky. Dir. by Gilliam. Written by Alverson and Gilliam. 00:17:41.
mentioned throughout the film is King Max the Vainglorious398. The king finds something
strange in his food while eating, he gives it to one of his squires to test whether someone was
trying to poison him, but the squire identifies it as plaster, more specifically, as 12th century
plaster399. The squire mentions the time he was “fighting the Blessed Sisters of St.
Alopecia...a band of warrior nuns.”400
The film tagline is also a case of semantic nonsense: “Jabberwocky: the monster so
horrible that people caught the plague to avoid it.”401 And here is an example which is closer
to semantic pataquès: “The cardinal said, ‘I asked for 13 vergers. Why have you brought me
13 virgins?’”402
There are also names which strike us as strange until we find out their meanings. The
knight in a story which is read to the king is called Sir Bromiades, “bromiades” is the Latin
name of a genus in the kingdom of animals, class of insects, order coleoptera403. Saint
Alopecia turns out to be the saint of hair loss. Griselda, in addition to its phonetic similarity to
“grisly”, whose meaning includes “inspiring disgust or distaste”404, turns out to mean gray
battle-maid, from the Old High German “grisja Hilda”405, a predestined name in all ways;
after all, she is the girl Dennis is fighting for.
Unfortunately, I do not have the space here in order to start describing in which ways
these examples weave themselves into the web of the narrative, but I can at least describe
some of the cultural codes built by the text in more detail.
One of the important cultural codes is that of the Middle Ages, our cliché
understanding of which as dark and filthy the film deliberately leads to extremes. This code is
carefully built by the use of several archaic words of the time (hearken406, Saracen407),
weapons or parts of armor (falchion408, cuissart409, jambeau410, demi-brassards411) and names
of castles such as Caerlaverock412 and Apcadwallader413. This is reminiscent of Carroll’s

Jabberwocky. Dir. by Gilliam. Written by Alverson and Gilliam. 00:23:35.
Ibid., 00:23:55.
The worrior nuns are even funnier when realizing that alopecia means hair loss.
“Jabberwocky.” IMDb.
Jabberwocky. Dir. by Gilliam. Written by Alverson and Gilliam. 01:14:18.
“Bromiades brachyptera.”
“grisly;” Merriam-Webster Online.
„Griselda,” Online Etymology Dictionary.
“Date: before 12th century. archaic : to give heed to : hear.” “Hearken,” Merriam-Webster Online.
„Date: before 12th century: a member of a nomadic people of the deserts between Syria and Arabia.”
“Saracen,” Merriam-Webster Online.
“A broad-bladed slightly curved sword of medieval time.” “Falchion,” Merriam-Webster Online.
Cuissard is French for the part of an armor which protects the shin. “Cuissard.” LaRousse.
“A piece of medieval armor for the leg below the knee.” “Jambeau,” Merriam-Webster Online.
A piece of armor for the upper arm. “brassard.” Merriam-Webster Online.
A castle in the South-West of Scotland. “Caerlaverock Castle.” aboutScotland.
equivalent, the archaic “whiffle” and “burble”. The name of a historic person is used for the
King’s chamberlain, Passelewe. Robert Passelewe was Bishop of Chichester, as well as royal
clerk and Archdeacon of Lewes, who died in 1252414. The following section of the paratext in
the end of the film probably refers to him: “All characters portrayed in this film are entirely
fictitious and bear no resemblance to anyone living or dead, except for one.”415
A part of the medieval cultural code is built by the group of religious fanatics who, in
behavior reminiscent of the Inquisition, want to burn Dennis on a catapult (instead of a stake)
as a testimony to their “piety and godliness”, because he was wearing a nun’s clothes and was
therefore “the devil in the guise of a nun”. In the film, the plague is also often alluded to, the
Black Death being a functional metaphorical interpretation of the Jabberwock, with the
fanatic leader warning people: “Repent! The beast is at the gates!” The group practices public
self-flagellation, in clear reference to the Flagellant movement, a radical Christian movement
practiced in Europe between the 11th and 16th century416. The cultural code being built so
thoroughly seems to heighten the humorous effect when frames arise which merge into the
opposing code. Two examples of such frames are a member of the radical group practicing
public self-flagellation with spaghetti, and the leader of the flagellants wearing a ‘modern’ T-
shirt with a dreadful monster’s open mouth imprinted on it.
In the public ritual of the flagellants an interesting case of apparent nonsense arises:
“-Sin! -Sin. Sin.
-The spikes of the pondylus. -The pondylus.
-The crests of the dactylopters. -Dactylopters.
-The trigla. -The trigla.
-And the flying hogfish. -And the flying hogfish.
- Are as nothing compared to the beast that holds us prisoner!”417

This passage turns out to have an intertextual relationship to a book by Grillot de

Givry, Witchcraft, magic & alchemy, particularly to its description of an engraving of the
temptation of Saint Anthony by Martin Schongauer418:

“Ap” is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a “patronymic prefix in Welsh names, earlier
map ‘son,’ cognate with Gaelic mac. Since 17c. merged into surnames.” According to Keith Blayney,
there are three possible Cadwaldr Kings: Cadwaladr ap Meirchion, King of Meirionydd (born c.460), St
Cadwaladr Fendigaid ap Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd (b~603 d.664) and Cadwaladr of Caerdigan
(b~1096-1172), co-ruler of Gwynedd/Wales. See Blayney, Keith. “King Cadwallader.”
“Robert Papelew.” Absolute Astronomy.
Jabberwocky. Dir. by Gilliam. Written by Alverson and Gilliam.
“Flagellant”. The Free Dictionary by Farlex.
Jabberwocky. Dir. by Gilliam. Written by Alverson and Gilliam. 00:35:01.
Dixon, Bosch. Pp. 180.
“A rabid-featured monkey, armed with
a cudgel, is beating the Saint on the
head with all his might. Other monsters
are clinging to his robe. These have
outspread fins, bristling spikes like
those of the spondylus or the
branchiopods, and the pointed crests of
the dactylopters, the trigla, the flying
hog-fish, or crab-beetles, along their
spines [my emphasis].”419

You may be glad to find out that the

spondylus420 is simply a genus of
mollusks, while the dactylopterus421
and trigla are geni of fish. In
portmanteau-word fashion of packing
several entities into one, animals’
characteristics seem to have been
Martin Schongauer. Temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1470-75.422
appended to each other to form demonic creatures in the engraving. Here is a description of
the trigla: “a genus of fishes forming a group of the family of ‘mailed cheeks’ (Triglidae), and
easily recognized by three detached finger-like appendages in front of the pectoral fins, and
by their large, angular, bony head, the sides of which are protected by strong, hard and rough
bones.”423 Either Gilliam or Alverson must have read this book and found the passage
delightfully fitting for the film, with its unfamiliar words and reference to monstrous demons.
The direct reference to a representation of the temptation of Saint Anthony builds a
beautiful parallel to the case of the Salvatore Rosa painting as a source of inspiration for
Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock (see page 51).
Another code I would like to briefly mention is the cultural code of business.
Merchants go around in the film using a wall-street-like vocabulary, asking each other about
the wine-to-water ratio (also an allusion to Christianity). Dennis experiences rush hour on the
city streets and newcomers to the city complain about the monopoly of guilds and the
impossibility to become their member regardless of skill.
The film’s self-referentiality is worth mentioning since it is an indication of its
awareness with respect to the codes it builds and which are already very familiar to the

Givry, pp. 42.
Dixon, Bosch. Pp. 180.
“Gurnard (trigla)”. 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
viewers. The extremely dusty castle falling apart, its west tower simply crumbling down are
indicators of the film’s awareness of the fact that for the viewers, the code of the Middle Ages
involves a time past, and a world of ruins. As I had mentioned earlier, the princess is the
character most aware of the codes, which gives her some depth since she otherwise fits the
princess cliché perfectly. She hardly ever listens to what other characters have to say, and
bases almost everything on her pre-acquired knowledge. Her awareness of the way in which
stories function often has her detecting some facts correctly, as a parallel to the viewers’
ability to guess what will happen in a film based on their knowledge of codes:
“[Princess:] I know.
[Dennis:] You know?
[Princess:] In your adventures, you rescued a maiden chained to a dark cliff.
[Dennis:] No, not exactly.
[Princess:] She fell in love. You fell in love. And there and then before the gods, you
made a pact only death could break.
[Dennis:] No, you're on the wrong tack. [but not wrong about him being in love with
someone else]
[Princess:] Come. You must not linger in idle conversation. You gained entry to the
castle by stealth... and now you must leave in the same way.
[Dennis:] I know.”424

The characters’ awareness of language, the fact that they keep checking what things
mean, or what people mean by the things they say, also seems a clear link to Carroll’s Alice
“-Not really, sire. -What do you mean, Passelewe, ‘Not really, sire’? -Now, which
part of this is giving you difficulty? -Well, all of it, frankly. What do you mean by
“-The toll of your knights, sire. -Now, just a moment, Passelewe. You used that
‘sire’ for the same reason you used it in the first place? -Right. -Right. I thought so. -

Let me now come to the other Jabberwocky film. The Czech title of Jan Švankmajer’s
film, Žvahlav aneb šatičky Slaměného Huberta (Jabberwocky, or Straw Hubert’s Clothes), is
a reference to both Lewis Carroll’s poem and to a book by Vítězslav Nezval published in
1936, Anička Skřítek a slaměný Hubert (Annie the Gnome and Straw Hubert), a book credited
as the first Czech nonsense book427, and supposedly influenced by the recent publication of a

Jabberwocky. Dir. by Gilliam. Written by Alverson and Gilliam. 01:02:36.
Ibid., 01:11:12.
Ibid., 01:12:12.
Syrovátková, Helena. History of Czech literature for children.

translation of Carroll’s Alice books in 1931428. Unfortunately, no English translation of
Anička Skřítek a slaměný Hubert exists, to my knowledge, at the moment. One source
describes the book as “a confrontation of thinking between a country child and a town
child”429, which seems to have hardly any connection to Švankmajer’s film. Since the
description of the scriptwriter only mentions “Švankmajer from themes by Lewis Carroll”430,
I believe it is safe to assume that the film is not strongly based on the Czech children’s book.
The reference could have simply been included in the title as an indication for the Czech
audience to expect nonsense upon viewing, but more references which I had no access to due
to my inability to read the text might also be present in the film.
Švankmajer, born in 1934, has studied puppetry, works in the media of animation,
live-action film, sculpture, collage, printmaking, painting and poetry431 and has been a “self-
professed ‘militant’ member”432 of the Czech surrealist group for several years. His film is a
short film (14 minutes) which can certainly not be termed a narrative, a fact which does not
come as a surprise seen his background in Surrealism. Švankmajer declares in an interview: “I
do not work with intentions. Pursuing intensions leads to making films as theses. That has
nothing to do with freedom of imagination.”433 Marlow states that in Švankmajer’s films “it is
an imaginative kernel from which images unfold, with little obvious narrative logic, in a kind
of dream association. Any interpretation that seeks to tie them together into something
paraphrasable is likely to be a post-hoc rationalization.”434
The Czech Jabberwocky has little obvious narrative logic. No overarching story line
can be established. Reviews of the film are faced with either offering a short synopsis which
is too general, or giving detailed descriptions of the film. The Internet Movie Database plot
description says merely “Lewis Carroll's poem is read and followed by a free-form animated
depiction of images and toys from childhood, repeatedly overturned by a live cat.”435 On the
other extreme, nearly half the space of a review from the Monthly Film Bulletin of July 1986
is taken by the film synopsis:
“A wardrobe opens to reveal the Prague radio tower. In voice-over, a young girl reads
Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse on the Jabberwocky. In pixilated live action, the
wardrobe dances through the trees. Its doors open into a ‘Victorian’ nursery, filled
with dolls, toys and games. A bearded, bespectacled man peers down from a
photographic portrait as the objects begin to come to life. Jars ‘grow’ on the wardrobe,
an Alice-like doll flits to and fro. As the Jabberwocky reading ends, the wardrobe
Borovanová, Jana. “ NEZVAL, VÍTÌZSLAV (1900 - 1958).”
Dark Alchemy, Ed. by Peter Hames, Pp. 171.
Jackson, Wendy. „Anima Animus Animation.“ Animation World Magazine.
Marlow, „Nightmares in Prague again: Svankmajer’s Faust.“ Pp. 1.
Ibid., Pp. 3-4.
Ibid., Pp. 3.
„Žvahlav aneb šatičky Slaměného Huberta.” IMDb.
opens and a crumpled child’s sailor suit appears hanging from the rail. In a series of
episodes, a number of objects give ‘special performances.’ A doll wakes and careers
around the now empty room in its pram. The suit dances to and fro, until branches
sprout from the walls and furniture, obscuring the suit and the photographic portrait.
The branches blossom, rosy apples drop and burst open, their insides maggot-infested.
The suit mounts a rocking-horse, which prances into the wardrobe. In a motif which is
to be repeated between each ‘tableau’, a wall of children’s building blocks fills the
screen and arranges itself into scenes: a landscape then a maze, through which a line
wanders to a dead end. Finally a black cat scatters the blocks. A stream of small dolls
tears its way out of a large straw doll; they are then redressed, dismembered and
ground up by the mechanisms of a dolls’ house and coffee grinder. The bits are cooked
on a miniature range, before a tea party of larger dolls innocently tucks into the fired
and boiled parts. Squads of soldiers, on foot and horse, march out of the sleeves of an
empty suit; a porcelain baby materializes in a cradle and circles the table top,
flattening the soldiers. A hat slides from the table to reveal a small carved figure in
bone atop a pen knife, which pirouettes around the table to lively music. When it
finally falls, the blade snaps shut and blood oozes from the figure. The pages of a
school book escape from their satchel and become paper planes, boats and horses. The
portrait of the man sticks out a real tongue, and begins to exhude dominoes backed
with pictures of a girl’s head. A squadron of paper planes flies out into a courtyard.
For the last time, the blocks and maze appear, the wandering line successfully
traverses the maze, and wanders up the wall to deface the portrait. The wardrobe
opens: the cat struggles, trapped in a bird cage, and the child’s suit lies crumpled.
Above it, a black suit hangs on the rail.”436

The only thing this synopsis omits is the credit sequence, but that is described
eventually too. In the credit sequence “a parental hand is briefly but repeatedly descending
upon a pink bottom while the soundtrack contributes a resonant slap.”437
The film has a structure which can be likened more to that of a poem than to narrative
structure. Jabberwocky is clearly divided into parts by the repeating image of the maze.
O’Pray draws attention towards the tense relationship between the “sensuous chaos of the
subject-matter”438 and this rational structure. Unfortunately, I lack sufficient knowledge of the
most basic filmic signs and their interaction which would enable me to perform such an
As established earlier, although there can be no story without a diegesis, there can
be a diegesis without any story. I showed that portmanteau nonsense has this ability of
creating a diegesis despite it being non-narrative. The Czech film has the same ability, which
is why the short IMDb synopsis describes it as a depiction. The film creates the universe of a
child’s room, more specifically, a Victorian nursery. I’ve previously come to the conclusion
that the level of frames suffices in order to build a rudimentary form of diegesis. By means of
featuring several of the objects which typically belong to a Victorian nursery, the wardrobe,

Field, Simon. „Jabberwocky.“ Monthly Film Bulletin. Pp. 222.
O’Pray, Michael. „Jan Švankmajer: A Mannerist Surrealist“ Dark Alchemy… Pp. 55.
the table with chairs, the dolls, toys, rocking-horse, potty, pram and dolls’ house, and even the
wallpaper, the film manages to build a diegesis.
Švankmajer mentions in an interview that he considers himself to be “mentally on the
same side of the river”439 as Lewis Carroll. Whereas Gilliam’s Jabberwocky mirrors the story
of the second part of Carroll’s poem (stanzas two to six), Švankmajer’s film, with its
positioning outside the narrative and creation of a diegesis, is formally closer to the first
stanza of Jabberwocky, a case of portmanteau nonsense.
Petley says “shock and incomprehension is probably the first reaction to the films of
Jan Švankmajer.”440 Shock and incomprehension is also Alice’s reaction to the poem
Jabberwocky. I believe Švankmajer’s film shares many characteristics with portmanteau
nonsense. The ambiguity which is typical of portmanteau nonsense, its ‘attack’ on clear, set
signified, is created in the film by means of constant subversive ‘attacks’ on the traditional
(and inseparable) diegetic categories of space and time. In the universe built by the film time
has a strange kind of continuity, dream-like and incoherent, and space does not remain
Objects simply appear and disappear from the room. The use of dolls, puppets and
effigies often disturbs proportion, perspective and scale.441 Jars grow out of a chest of
drawers. Branches growing through the walls, the sailor costume riding the toy-horse
‘beyond’ the doors of the closet into another space, three-dimensional dolls which get ironed
into two-dimensional drawings of dolls, the line finally finding its way out of the maze going
on to ridicule the picture, all of these are instances of subversion of the traditional idea of
space, which make the diegetic space seem inconsistent. The presence of toys such as the
wooden building blocks, the 3D puzzle cubes, the dominoes and the maze all refer to
traditional ideas of space and building space.
O’Pray mentions the opening sequence as an example of the way in which
Swankmajer’s film moves between different types of space, neither of which achieve any
status over the others: “It [the film] begins with a pixilated sequence of a wardrobe in a forest,
juxtaposed with a modern urban landscape, and then cuts to a theatrical tableau.”442
Švankmajer’s interest in stop-animation and bringing life to everyday objects is a
source which naturally leads to various spatial contradictions. In the film itself, as O’Pray
notes, the status of the building bricks as animated objects is juxtaposed “with their existence

Roger, Pam. „The Works of Jan Švankmajer.“
Petley, Julian. „In the Capital of Magic.“ Monthly Film Bulletin. Pp. 218.
O’Pray, Michael. „Jan Švankmajer: A Mannerist Surrealist“ Dark Alchemy… Pp. 56.
Ibid., Pp. 60.
as real objects obeying the natural laws of gravity.”443 O’Pray mentions that mainstream film
aspires to the condition of naturalism with its classical rules of construction, based on some
principles by which “some kinship is made with time and space.” O’Pray also says that even
if film in general abandons ordinary spatio-temporal relations, as Hauser claims,
Švankmajer’s films represent an even more extreme form of abandonment of these relations.
With respect to animating the inaimate, Švankmajer says:
“For me, objects are more alive than people, more permanent and more expressive –
the memories they possess far exceed the memories of man. Objects conceal within
themselves the events they’ve witnessed. I don’t actually animate objects. I coerce
their inner life out of them.”444

Let me remind you of Marlowe’s statement regarding the Czech Jabberwocky. “Any
interpretation that seeks to tie them [its images] together into something paraphrasable is
likely to be a post-hoc rationalization.” I often encountered such interpretations in my
readings. The caged cat in the final image of the film is interpreted as an “image of fettered
imagination, when […] we confront the somber suit of adulthood.”445 I had never thought of
this possible interpretation before reading it, and this now strikes me as similar to my reaction
upon reading Humpty Dumpty definitions of portmanteau words. The urge to find a definition
of portmanteau words, and the urge to find meaning in Švankmajer’s moving images point to
a common characterstic. In the case of portmanteau words, once a definition was coined, one
tended to take it for granted and overlook the fact that it was only one of the many possible
meanings built by means of associations. Once several interpretations of scenes in
Švankmajer’s film are read (e.g. the final image was also interpreted as showing “the glory
and pain of the break with childhood”446), it becomes clear that they are all equally valid,
because the images themselves are ambiguous enough to leave room for several different
interpretations. This is another fact which shows that ambiguity is a characteristic common to
portmanteau nonsense and Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky.
To resume, Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky narrative functions in a way strongly
reminiscent of semantic nonsense. The film having a clear story is indicative of it as a parallel
of stanzas 2 to 6 from Carroll’s poem, and awareness of the poem’s use of nonsense is
reflected by its inclusion in the metadiegesis as well as by the semantic nonsense appearing in
the detailed narrative of the diegesis. Švankmajer’s film, in contrast, formally situates itself
closer to the first stanza of Carroll’s poem. It is not a narrative film, but, like portmanteau

Ibid., Pp. 58.
Cherry, Brigid. „Dark Wonders and the Gothic Sensibility. Jan Švankmajer’s Něko z Alenky.“
Field, Simon. „Jabberwocky.“ Monthly Film Bulletin. Pp. 222.
Dryje, „The force of imagination“,Dark Alchemy…, Pp. 130.
nonsense, it manages to build a diegetic universe nonetheless. The film’s ambiguity is, among
others, determined by it being subversive of the categories of space and time.

4. Conclusion

This thesis attempts to develop a methodology which would provide a useful

framework in analyzing literary nonsense. A distinction is made between two levels of
analysis: the level of individual words, where asemantic and morphological nonsense is
formed, and the level of language, where semantic and portmanteau nonsense is formed.
On the level of individual signs, in the case of asemantic nonsense, the reader is faced
with the absence of the signified, as is the case in sound poetry. Morphological nonsense
characterizes itself through changes on the side of the signifier, while the signified remains
intact and decodable. In the case of asemantic and morphological nonsense attention is
focused primarily on the materiality and sound of linguistic signs.
Nonsense on the level of multiple linguistic signs takes place at the interaction of the
signified - the level of frames and codes, according to Barthes. The main characteristic of
what I have termed semantic nonsense is the opposition between frames that can merge into a
code of logical conventionality and frames that cannot, merging therefore into its opposite.
These frames can be built by both the syntagmatic level of the text and the cultural knowledge
that the reader brings to the text. The opposition has as its immanent consequence the
deautomatization of the frames of logical conventionality, through which poetical speech is
attained. Semantic nonsense can be disguised by successful metaphorical interpretation, however,
this does not undo or cancel the nonsense. If metaphorical interpretations can successfully be applied,
the frames of semantic nonsense merge primarily into a code other than the two opposing ones. The
nonsense therefore receives a position of secondary importance.
Portmanteau nonsense is a type of nonsense unable to build any clear codes, and
which results from the interaction of portmanteau words and regular words embedded in a
functional syntactic structure. All the nonsense words merging into portmanteau nonsense can
be recognized to belong to particular parts of speech. The portmanteau words included in this
type of nonsense are unable to merge into any fixed codes due to their variety and ambiguity
of meaning, but they often have the ability of building frames.
Setting these categories offers fixed and useful points of orientation in approaching the
structural analysis necessary for the close reading of nonsense texts, as can be seen in the
analysis of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, of which only the first stanza turns out to be
nonsensical at the level of interaction of words.

Approaching the analysis of visual nonsense from narratology, the interaction of
verbal nonsense and narratology is first explored. In the area of semantic and morphological
nonsense, both narrative and multiple diegeses prove to be possible. Portmanteau nonsense
can tell no story, but it can build a diegesis, and asemantic can do neither of the two. Looking
at the Jabberwocky films from the point of view of narrative and diegesis, Gilliam’s
Jabberwocky proves to be a narrative whose functioning is reminiscent of semantic nonsense.
Jan Švankmajer’s film, in contrast, tells no story but manages to build a diegetic universe
whose ambiguity, reminiscent of portmanteau nonsense, is determined, among other factors,
by it undermining the categories of space and time.


Primary sources

Aristophanes. The Acharnians. January 15, 2009. Project Gutenberg. September 3, 2009.
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Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. Ditzingen: Reclam, 1987.
Bichsel, Peter. Der Leser. Das Erzählen. Frankfurter Poetik-Vorlesungen. Darmstadt: Hermann
Luchterhand Verlag, 1982.
Bichsel, Peter. Kindergeschichten. Frankfurt am Main, 1997.
Busch, Wilhelm. Gesammelte Werke. Diogenes, 2007.
Camus, Albert. Der Mythos von Sisyphos, ein Versuch über das Absurde. Bad Salzig: Rauch, 1950.
Carroll, Lewis. "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass." The
Annotated Alice. Ed. Martin Gardner. Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1972.
Carroll, Lewis. Phantasmagoria and Other Poems. Project Gutenberg. September, 2009.
Carroll, Lewis. The Hunting of the Snark. Pr