Jabberwocky Definitions: A Study Guide for Lewis Carroll’s Classic Poem

Study Guide

Jabberwocky is a fantastical poem originally published in Lewis Carroll’s 1872 novel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Since that time, the poem, which contains many so-called “nonsense” words, has been published on its own and in many collections of poetry. Jabberwocky is imaginative and suspenseful, and has become a favorite poem in the English language.

But is this really a nonsense poem as so many people say? While it is true that many of the words in the poem are original, Lewis Caroll was quite brilliant in his way of forming words. He used elements that we intuitively recognize that mark words as a noun, verb or adjective. For example, the words “mimsy,” “frabjous,” “slithy,” and “tulgey” all contain suffixes that quickly mark them as adjectives in the reader’s mind.

As for the definitions of many of the words themselves, they are certainly open to interpretation. However, they can be guessed from context (some more easily than others). Below is the text of the poem, with certain words in bold type. The words in bold are defined in the final section of this article.

The Poem by Lewis Carroll

`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, has 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.

Definitions of the Nonsensical Words

brillig noun – that time between twilight and pitch black, when it is just starting to get scary dark

slithy adjective – slimy and slithering

tove noun – a short, greasy reptile

gyreverb – turn around

gimbleverb – move in a quivery yet nimble fashion

wabe noun – edge of the treeline right where the forest begins

mimsy adjective – flimsy, yet menacing

borogove noun – small animal that looks like an armadillo, with a pointy nose and soft skin

mome rathnoun – animal similar to a sloth, which hangs in a tree and is usually completely silent, but when provoked cries out very loudly

outgrabe verb – past tense of verb outgribe, to call out outrageously loudly

Jabberwocknoun – large animal best understood in the larger context of the poem, whose main features–as far as other animals and humans are concerned–are “the jaws that bite” and “the claws that catch”

Jubjub bird noun – a huge flightless bird that looks identical to Big Bird, but which is much more agressive and dangerous

frumious – adjective – voluminously furry

Bandersnatch noun – four-legged black and white striped animal that snatches up unsuspecting prey

vorpal adjective – lithe and sharp

manxomeadjective – skilled at hiding

Tumtum tree – noun (compound) – short, deciduous tree with broad, bright green leaves

uffishadjective – deep, profound

whiffle verb – to breathe heavily and loudly

tulgeyadjective – dense and wet, often used to refer to foliage

burble verb – to make vocalized bubbles with the mouth

snicker-snack interjection – onomatopoeia used to describe the sound of a sword cutting into something

galumph verb – to gallop triumphantly

beamishadjective – beaming

frabjousadjective – fabulous to the point of causing great happiness

calloohinterjection – expression of happiness

callay interjection – expression of happiness

chortle verb – to chuckle happily while making joyous exclamations

Click here for a downloadable, printable sheet of Jabberwocky definitions.