Mimsy Were The Borogoves Analysis Essay

At the suggestion of the kind commenter, let me discuss the syntax of

All mimsy were the borogoves

There are two possibilities. The first is that mimsy is a noun, in which case we have the structure

Subject Copulative-Verb Predicate-Complement

where

Subject = Noun Phrase All mimsy
Copulative Verb = were
Predicate Complement = Noun Phrase the borogoves

This pattern would obtain for recognizable nouns thusly:

All priests were the granters of indulgences.

The second possibility is that mimsy is an adjective. Ordinarily we would expect the same word order when the complement is an adjective, i.e.,

The borogoves were all mimsy

but it's possible to invert the order and put the adjectival complement all mimsy first, i.e., to have the order

Predicate-Complement Copulative Verb Subject

In recognizable words:

All rosy were the cheeks of the children.

This is a recognizably poetic style. Consider the lines from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass:

Brave, brave were the soldiers (high named to-day) who lived through the fight;
But the bravest press'd to the front and fell, unnamed, unknown.

In ordinary prose, we'd say "the soldiers were brave".

At the prompt of a second kind commenter, let me note that the modifier all doesn't help us figure out whether to choose noun or adjective for mimsy. (Perhaps this part of the sly whimsy of the Deacon Dodgson.) If we're thinking noun, then all is an acceptable as a universal determinative, as in

All soldiers are brave.

If we lean toward adjective, then all is acceptable as an adverbial modifier, as in

We are all excited.

(Note the ambiguity. In an intensifying role -- We are all very excited -- the Ngram viewer finds few examples in the 19th century, and it seems to be an American colloquialism. The universal role -- We are all of us excited -- is common and earlier.)

To decide, consider the following common* English adjectives, most of which are formed by adding the suffix -y to the related noun ending in s/se to get an adjectival form: ease->easy, nose->nosy, etc.

antsy artsy backwoodsy bitsy blousy blowsy1 bluesy booksy bossy bousy2 brassy busy3 cheesy choosy citrusy classy clumsy4 cosy5 creasy cutesy6 ditsy dressy drowsy7 easy flimsy8 flossy folksy fussy gassy glassy glossy gneissy goosy grassy greasy gutsy hissy kissy lossy lousy messy minstrelsy mossy mousy mussy newsy noisy nosy outdoorsy primrosy prissy queasy9 rosy sassy sudsy teensy10 tipsy tricksy weensy11 woodsy wussy

Now compare this to a list of common** English nouns ending in -sy:

apostasy autopsy biopsy catalepsy controversy courtesy curtsy daisy dropsy dyspepsy ecstasy embassy epilepsy fantasy footsy geodesy gypsy heresy hypocrisy hypostasy idiosyncrasy isostasy jealousy leprosy narcolepsy necropsy palsy pansy pleurisy poesy pussy speakeasy whimsy

The countable nouns require a plural form to go with the determinative all and the plural verb were:

Allautopsieswere performed by the coroner.
Allfantasieswere repressed by the patients.

and so on. The noncountable nouns in the singular can take the preceding all, but they require a singular verb:

All fantasyis meaningless.
All courtesyis hypocritical.

Given the distribution favoring adjectives of words ending in -sy, the lexical likelihood of finding a related noun, the syntactic constraints on number, and the fact that this is a poem, where the subject/adjectival-complement order may be inverted, a fluent English speaker will consider that mimsy is an adjective meaning having the qualities of a mim, some noun unknown.


*I obtained my list here. Since I edited the results, and I'm going to argue by weight of vocabulary, I need to reveal my method. I avoided double counting by excluding some words formed by prefixing (e.g., aacatalepsy, discourtesy, nondrowsy, overbusy, rebiopsy, ultraglossy, uneasy).

**I eliminated technical (mostly medical) terms (biorhexistasy, cholecystolithotripsy, cholelithotripsy, dyschromatopsy, glacioisostasy, hemiachromatopsy, hemichromatopsy, hypnolepsy, lithotripsy, nephrolithotripsy).

‡ Those not related to common nouns are noted in the numbered notes, the content of which is from the OED. Those which have no known candidates for related nouns are in bold italic.

  1. blowsy coarse and flushed. From blowze, a bloated slattern
  2. bousy drunk. From bouse, liquor or a drinking bout
  3. busy No known related noun, from the Old English adjective besig
  4. clumsy probably from the now-obsolete clumse, eventually from a Scandinavian word meaning to benumb with cold. It had a number of pejorative uses as an adjective and an attributive noun.
  5. cosy "derivation unknown"
  6. cutesy No noun, from cute, an adjective
  7. drowsy From drowse, a fit of sleepiness, itself from the verb of the same spelling
  8. flimsy Derivation uncertain. The claim of film seems like folk etymology, especially given the adjective filmy. But the word flim is preserved as a fossil in flim-flam, and it’s possibly related to an Old Norse word flim meaning a mockery or lampoon.
  9. queasy "Of obscure history"
  10. teensy Likely from the obsolete tine, very small or something very small
  11. weensy No related noun. Likely from wee and a rhyme with teensy

A summary and analysis of Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’

‘Jabberwocky’ is perhaps the most famous nonsense poem in all of English literature. Although the poem was first published in Lewis Carroll‘s novel Through the Looking Glass in 1871, the first stanza was actually written and printed by Carroll in 1855 in the little periodical Mischmasch, which Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) compiled to entertain his family. Below is ‘Jabberwocky’ (sometimes erroneously called ‘The Jabberwocky’), followed by a brief analysis of its meaning. ‘Nonsense’ literature it may be, but let’s see if we can make some sense of the glorious nonsense.

‘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.

In terms of its plot, ‘Jabberwocky’ might be described as nonsense literature’s answer to the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf: what Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots, calls an ‘overcoming the monster’ story. A hero leaves home and goes out into the world in order to face down some evil; after encountering difficulties and tests of his bravery, he is triumphant and vanquishes his foe; and then he comes home again. It’s a story told again and again in literature, from Beowulf to The Lord of the Rings. The structure of Carroll’s poem echoes this basic plot structure in two ways: through adopting the ballad metre traditionally used for poems telling such a story (that is, the four-line stanza, or quatrain form), and through repeating the opening stanza in the closing stanza, suggesting the hero’s return home after his adventure.

The poem is also a masterpiece of linguistic inventiveness: every stanza is a feast of neologisms – new words, coinages, nonsense formations. Several of them have even entered common usage: ‘chortle’ (a blend of ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’) and ‘galumph’ (meaning to move in a clumsy way) are both used by many people who probably have no idea that we have Lewis Carroll to thank for them. (‘Mimsy’, too, is often credited to Carroll – though it actually existed prior to the poem.)

Indeed, as well as being a fine piece of imaginative literature, ‘Jabberwocky’ also demonstrates a central principle of language: what linguists call productivity or open-endedness, namely the phenomenon whereby users of a language can endlessly create new words or phrases. As Noam Chomsky has shown, users of a language demonstrate an innate linguistic creativity from a young age, and this is how children are able to pick up a new language relatively quickly: they learn not simply by acquiring knowledge, but by using an in-built talent for spotting how words are put together to form meaningful utterances. If something is both lithe and slimy, why not combine the two words – both their sounds and their meanings – to create slithy? The second word of the poem, ‘brillig’, is a word for ‘four o’clock in the afternoon’, the time when people begin boiling things for dinner (as Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass in his analysis of the words, when she asks him what the words of the poem mean).

For more information about what individual words of the poem mean, see Humpty Dumpty’s explanation of ‘Jabberwocky’ from Through the Looking-Glass. Continue your odyssey into the world of nonsense verse with our discussion of Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.

Image: Illustration for ‘Jabberwocky’ by John Tenniel, 1871; Wikimedia Commons.

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