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Beware the Jabberwock
Written March 23, 2014


In 1855 Charles Dodgson composed a verse he claimed was a “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.”

   Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
   Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
   All mimsy were ye borogoves;
   And ye mome raths outgrabe.

He later added other stanzas, and the poem became known as “Jabberwocky.”

In 1871, under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, he included it in his Alice in Wonderland sequel called Through the Looking-Glass.  Alice uses a mirror to read the poem.  She can’t make sense of it, of course, but she comments that “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don't exactly know what they are!”

I can tell you what ideas the first two lines fill my head with.

To me, “bryllyg” suggests “brilliant.”  At the end of the second line, “wabe” suggests “wave.”

Before that, “gymble” is very like “gimbal,” and “gyre” is an actual word, both having to do with rotation.

Humpty Dumpty adds another clue:  “‘Slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’”

That leaves only “toves” unexplained.  They must be the little sardine-like fish called grunion.

Therefore, to translate:

   It was a brightly moonlit night, and the slippery grunion
   Did twist and turn at the peak of the tide.

They do that, you know.  It happens during full moons on California beaches.  It’s called spawning.  Or a grunion run.  People turn out to watch.

Wikipedia tells us that an invitation to go see the “‘running of the grunion’ was used for several years during the 1950s and 1960s by adolescent boys as part of a seduction ‘line’ to get their dates alone in a site overlooking the sea, much like ‘the submarine races.’”

Ah, yes, the submarine races.  Apparently they were popular even at inland sites like The Ohio State University.  In the 1960s Ben Hayes, a columnist for the Columbus Citizen-Journal, sometimes alluded to watching submarines race in the Olentangy River.  I didn’t understand what he meant.  The river wasn’t big enough for subs, and they would be hard to see if submerged.  Later I found out what he was talking about:  parking along the river to watch the races with one’s date, then making out while “waiting for the event to start.”

As long as we’re reminiscing:  The morning Citizen-Journal was the Columbus paper our family read.  (It had been the Ohio State Journal before a 1959 merger.)  For whatever reason, we didn’t take the afternoon Columbus Dispatch.

Nor did we subscribe to the newspaper published in our county seat, the Marysville Journal-Tribune.  Back then, Marysville was only twice as big as our own little town.  It didn’t even get promoted from “village” to “city” until a few years after the 1960 census, when its population was estimated to have surpassed 5,000.  Instead, our afternoon daily was the Marion Star, from the more populous small city to our northeast.

And as long as we’re digressing about newspapers:  Have you noticed they devise their own rules about proper names?  Sometimes those rules produce odd-looking results.

In the old days, when the Citizen-Journal mentioned Vine Street and Neil Avenue, they used the abbreviations Vine-st and Neil-av.  I don’t think this affectation by the C-J ever caught on.

Also in the old days, the Star and many other publications identified a married woman not by her own name (Sally Jones Smith) but by her husband’s name (Mrs. Robert Smith).  This convention seemed antiquated to me even in 1961.

For example, here’s part of a Star obituary from that year for area farmer Ray Houk.  We never learn the first names of Ray’s daughters.

(And Ray's son-in-law Ernest Vanderkooi?  His surname is not a misprint; it actually exists in Dutch, though this obit is the only place I’ve seen it.  In English, he’d be Ernie Cage.)

Back to the previous digression.  Even today here in Pittsburgh, the rules about names seem arbitrary.

Outside Brashear High School last November, Anjohnito Willet was arrested for shooting fellow students Andrew Umphrey, DaJour Jones, and Robert "Eugene" Minor III.  On second reference in the Post-Gazette, one might expect the shooter to be referred to as Mr. Willet.  But the boys are only juveniles.  Therefore, the paper called them Anjohnito and Andrew and DaJour and Robert.

On the other hand, if the paper were to review a concert by adults Meat Loaf and Miley Cyrus, in later paragraphs they’d be referred to as Ms. Cyrus and Mr. Loaf.



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