Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jabberwocky & Dr. Seuss: A Lesson in Nonsense

For the uninitiated, "Jabberwocky" is a nonsense verse found in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass.  As Alice is conversing with the White King and White Queen (chess pieces) she finds a book in seemingly unintelligible language.  Realizing that she's traveling through an inverted world, she holds a mirror to the poem and reads the reflected verse of "Jabberwocky" which to her disappointment still makes little sense.


'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.

'It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, '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 exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate' (Carroll, Lewis (2010) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass pp 64–65 Createspace ltd ISBN 1-4505-7761-X)
The concept of nonsense verse was not new to Carroll. Nonsense verse existed in Shakespeare's work as well as the brothers Grimm's fairytales. Shakespeare, in fact, is well-known for coining many new words.  Martin Gardner (The Annotatted Alice:  The Definitive Edition.  NY Norton & Company, 1999), however,  wrote that "Few would dispute that Jabberwocky is the greatest of all nonsense poems in English."

Dr. Seuss  was also a genius with nonsense words as he invited kids to explore parallel worlds, language, and morality!!!!
I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life's realities. Dr. Seuss US author & illustrator (1904 - 1991)

The genius and fun of nonsense verse is that while many of the words are nonce words (words invented to meet a need that is not expected - often for a particular occasion), the syntax and poetic forms are observed (as you can tell the poem is written in ABAB rhyme scheme and iambic meter). The rhythm and sound of the words make this somewhat scary poem a lot of fun to read and 'feels' solvable.

Nonce words are often used to study the development of language in children. They enable researchers to investigate kids' understanding of morphemes, prefixes, suffixes, and syntax (grammar, sentence structure).  Jean Berko developed the "Wug test" (1958) to observe and better understand the acquisition of the 'plural' in English-speaking children:
"This is a wug.  Now there are two of them.  There are two.....?"
The point is that creating nonce or nonsense words in verse is FUN while being an excellent exercise in language, sentence structure and comprehension. This is particularly important as kids are developing vocabulary and comprehension skills.  So often, when they come to words they can't read or don't quite recognize, readers can use context to help them.  This is the power of playing with nonsense words.  By understanding how the location of a word in a sentence can tell readers if it is an action, a name, a description can help them better figure out its meaning.  Nonsense can be used to teach kids the power of context, rhyme, alliteration, and sentence structure. It also makes language learning more fun and less intimidating.

Instructional Ideas:
  • Jabberwocky
    • Ask your kids to act out the lines.  
    • Ask them what the words mean.  
    • Ask them to supply their own words to help explain the verse.
  • Dr. Seuss' ABC's - While Jabberwocky can be used and read with older kids, this is ideal for younger ones. It teaches the alphabet and letter sounds and it plays with language in an engaging, enticing manner.  Here are some instructional ideas:
    • Ask your child what the nonsense might mean (the illustrations will help too).
    • Come up with your own version of this book full of alliteration and nonsense words.
Here is a YouTube clip of the book read in Jamaican Patois:
  • And of course there's Dr. Seuss' The LoraxBelow is an older animated version.  
    • Listen / read this together.  Make a list of the nonsense words.
    • Can you identify what they mean in isolation when reading the list?  What about when you read them in the book.  Why?
    • Come up with your own definitions of the words.  Insert them into the story and read it again.  Is it as much fun to read?  Why/why not?
    • Talk about the value of using nonsense words and HOW masters like Dr. Seuss use them so masterfully.
Language learning should be meaningful and fun.  I can't think of a better way to teach sense, than using nonsense!  What do you think?


  1. I love Jabberwocky. I memorized it when I was 14 to use as an audition piece and have loved it ever since. Because it is nonsensical there is a lot of room for the imagination. My 4 year old, 2 year old, and I enjoy making up words (usually through rhyming). We come up with some silly words that my older son occasionally assigns a meaning to and adopts into his regular vocabulary. LOL
    BTW-Thanks so much for linking up for Feed Me Friday this week. It was great to have you back.

  2. Wonderful posts and ideas about interesting kids in words and reading. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Love this post! My daughters and I often make up funny sounding words and sing them out loud! Always fun andI find helps them with their vocabulary. Bith my girls are advanced for their age and express themselves beyond their years. Thank you for sharing.
    Congrats and good luck with your book!
    --Visiting from the Monday Mingle :)

  4. Thanks for linking up with Magical Monday Meme ~ great blog ~ perfect ~ would you mind putting a link in your post to the meme? Thanks ~ namaste, Carol ^_^

  5. I like nonsense too! We joke about "silly" words around here! I love the idea of sharing Jabberwocky too! Thanks for linking up at Teach Me Tuesday! Your posts always give me so much to think about!!

  6. I'm not sure I ever read the Jabberwocky poem before. Its interesting that my spell check doesn't like that word. I guess it doesn't like nonsense words.
    Anything that stimulates kids thinking and reading processes is wonderful. I know my kids loved Dr. Seuss and its adventures.
    Great post as usual. You always get me thinking.

  7. Wonderful choice Meryl, - I have always loved these nonsense poems and came early to Edward Lear - great for the imagination.

  8. Thanks for joining us at Creative Mondays :)

  9. Sometimes I find nonsense coming out of my mouth without trying. Great post. Carver, ABC Wednesday Team

  10. I intralutely love this.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  11. What a brilliant man that Dr Seuss was... LOVE him!!

  12. This is a great pick for the letter J. I suppose many of us like to talk nonsense more than we care to admit and pretend to understand nonsense so as not to appear stupid. It makes for a delightfully confusing conversation with both sides walking away none the wiser. :))

  13. A timely post what with the release of the movie "The Lorax." I actually used this method when teaching 4th grade grammar and the kids had a jolly good time!

    abcw team

  14. I am so literal and logical that my first thought was, if a child can't read and therefore has a limited vocabulary, how does he/she know it's a nonsense word and not just another word? Sorry. I always over-think things. Maybe that is why I don't read fantasy. But I do have a sense of humor, truly.

    1. This is a really good question.

      First, a poor reader's vocabulary is often better and more advanced than the words he or she can read. They can often hear that the word they are trying to read is one they never heard of before.

      You might also want to let them know BEFORE they read nonsense verse that a lot of the words in the text are nonsense - that this is like a puzzle trying ti figure out what they mean. This might actually take the bite and tension out of reading and having to know what the words their reading mean. In this case they can have fun with reading, focusing on the sounds of the letters and the sentence structure.

    2. The other thing about nonsense verse is that it allows kids to play with phonemes (letter sounds) and rhymes. This, in turn will help them later with phonics and with word recognition. The more they play with the "ace' sound, for example - whether the words they make up have recognized meaning or not - the more familiar they will be with it when they recognize it in print. So here too is an additional value to simply playing with words and word sounds (phonemes)... Aside from the fact that it is just fun having cool sounds roll off your tongue and inventing words that others 'sort-of' get.

  15. happy ww! thanks for joining tina´s ww :)

  16. I didn't realize nonsense words could be so beneficial to young readers. You would think it would only confuse them - but it seems to do the opposite. My son and I need to read more Dr. Seuss books! We saw the Lorax over the past weekend - I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more nonsense words in the story.

  17. Hi there! Found you over on the blog hop at 3 four and under. I'm your newest follower and would love a follow back :-)


  18. Following you from the Blog Hop hosted by MWTH! Come follow me back. Thanks!

  19. I first read the Jabberwocky when I was 9 or 10, and my interpretation of it was that a sort of dragon-like monster was slayed by a prince-like boy ;) Nonce really leaves a lot of room for children's imagination ^^ Thanks for sharing this!

  20. The "nonsense" poem from Through the Looking glass isn't nonsense at all. Linguistically speaking it shows the power of words and development of language to tell and re-tell the mythological story of the collective psyche of the archetypes that live within Alice as they wait for their hero, Alice, to “come again” to finally slay the jabberwocky in order to free them from the shadow that oppresses them. It is no less potent than our belief in the second coming of Christ to save us in a moment of rapture (Frabjous day) He tells it with a rhythmic almost hypnotic prose as if it is learned from an ancient time and in a sense it is, since the time of Wonderland begins with the development of Alice's psyche and what is inevitable to all metaphorically speaking, the slaying of the internal shadow. It is the archetypal journey that every person takes in the confrontation of the jabberwocky unique to each person, as unique to each as a fingerprint. The journey of such could only be told in a linguistic style as apparently "nonsense" as the poem as it is as tangible as a dream, but no less powerful, perhaps the most powerful and liberating thing that can happen to anyone. But the inner life is given no credence in Western culture, which is why, in my opinion, we are so materially wealthy and paradoxically psychologically impoverished. If anyone has ever read middle English poetry, it sounds as nonsense as this poem, but only because language evolves over time with each succeeding generation adding words while other words lose context or potency from a lack of use, but the words themselves are no less meaningful. The power of the poem would need to use words in this way “nonsense” to reflect the ancient roots of the mythology that surrounds the coming Frabjous Day or Day of Rapture, a celebration of the release from the oppression of the shadow queen told and re-told as might take place in the pre-literate oral story telling cultures that resemble our own history.

    The following is an excerpt from the Prologue in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written as he wrote it in Middle English, the language of his time:

    Whan that aprill with his shoures soote 
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote, 
And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour; 
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth 
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth 
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne 
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne, 
And smale foweles maken melodye, 
That slepen al the nyght with open ye 
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages); Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, 
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, 
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; 
And specially from every shires ende 
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende, 
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, 
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

    This is the beginning of a sacred pilgrimage to the Holy Site of Canterbury. It is unintelligible to us now, but potent to the audience of the time.

    1. Fascinating insight! Thank you for sharing. It rather makes one wish people still spoke that way.

  21. I am already happy to know the "Queens" English, more or less ! lol ! English is not my mothertongue.

  22. English isn't my mother tongue either. I invent new words in your language all the time and people seem to understand it somehow! I loved reading the books about Alice by Lewis Caroll!
    Thanks for your visit. I am still in Israel and tomorrow I will be leaving for Holland.

  23. I love fact I wub it! I have never though of asking my kiddos for the definition of nonsense words. I can't even wait to hear what they tell me! Found you on Welcome Wednesday def. following along!!

  24. What a fun post! Thanks for getting my imagination rolling! Jabberwocky is such a fun word!

  25. The Jabberwocky has a delicious feel when spoken, those words just roll around the tongue, if fact it is difficult when seeing it not to immediately want to say the words out loud.

  26. Tons of beautiful ideas here. Love Jabberwocky - like Alice, I kinda sorta make sense of it.

    Language is such a beautiful, slippery thing, isn't it?

  27. This should be a FUN experiment! Looking forward to reading your book and hearing more of your wonderful thoughts! And I’m passing this along far and wide!


  28. Meryl, I just posted your link on the WAHE (Wilson Area Home Educators) message board. It goes out to around 100 families in one fell swoop via email. I titled it “Literary Fun for the Young Ones.” Of course the adults will enjoy it just as much!

  29. I always liked the fun make up words and trying to make up a language as a child. My oldest d.i.l. was against using different words to describe things, but they grandsons have a big library of Dr. Suess and others... maybe she doesn't look at those as nonsense? ~Faythe @ GMT~

  30. Stumbled onto your blog via the blog hop and just wanted to show you some blog luv! def enjoyed this post new follower! :)

  31. Hi Meryl, Jabberwocky is such a fun J word. And I agree with what you said that "language should be meaningful and fun." What a fun way to learn.

    Thank you so much for this interesting post. Have a wonderful evening.

  32. Hello Meryl, thank you for such a fun and valuable post. I read ChrisJ's comment and your reply. I was wondering if you have a Pin It button (I'd like to pin your post for my favorite blog post folder on Pinterest) but it's okay if you don't. I shared this post on FB and Google plus. Off to look for that Saucy Slam post and bookmark it. I enjoyed that one very much :)

    1. Thank you, Hazel. I do not have a Pin It button - or rather, I don't really know what it is (yet). If you tell me how/were to get one, I think it's a great idea and I'd love for you and anyone else to be able to use and share these posts. Please feel free to enlighten me on this! In the meantime I'll begin my quest!

  33. Love this, so much fun. Used to act out Jabberwocky with my kids all the time; it had them in stitches. Nonsense is often the best medicine for a grunpy day!

  34. great post, I enjoyed reading it.

  35. Hi there coming from Oh! My Heartsie for my first visit, I love your blog and will enjoy looking around. Hope you can do the same
    Oh! My Heartsie
    Tweeting your blog post! @myllls
    Have a great weekend, Karren

  36. First of all I LOVE the Lorax - and in the movie having Divito for his voice is perfect!! Such an odd little creature :) Stopping in to visit from Friday's blog hop - would love a return favor with a follow via GFC, Google+ and me NEW FB page :) Have a great weekend!!

  37. Thank you for linking up with the Planet Weidknecht Weekend Hop!

  38. does anyone else see the ghost of the cheshire cat hidden in the leafy wallpaper of this page??


  39. If you're American, soccer probably isn't your cuppa tea.

    First of all, at all times I used the soccer teams themselves as a starting point.