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The dodo is dead, long live the dodo

© DigitalStock / CorbisThe dodo evolved on the island of Mauritius in the absence of serious predators, so it was no match for the dogs, rats and people that landed there in the 16th and 17th centuries. But though this large, flightless bird was extinct by the late 17thC, it lives on in language – paradoxically in the phrase dead as a dodo, and in novels like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Oxford once had the world’s only stuffed specimen of dodo, but sadly it was set alight in 1755 and only bits survived. Lewis Carroll, who lectured in mathematics at Christ Church in Oxford, is likely to have seen what remained of it, and he liked the bird enough to write one as a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.



The Dodo first appears at the end of Chapter 2, and in Chapter 3 organises the Caucus-race, where all the birds run around for half an hour to dry out. The Dodo has little dialogue, but what it says is quite revealing of its character. For example:

‘In that case,’ said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, ‘I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies—’
‘Speak English!’ said the Eaglet. ‘I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!’ . . .
‘What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, ‘was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.’

The race has no starting point or finishing line, no direction and no losers; everyone gets a prize when it’s over. Given the usual meaning of caucus, Carroll may be spoofing the political system. In their Book of General Ignorance, John Lloyd and John Mitchinson write that each bird ‘corresponds to a member of the boating party present when Dodgson [i.e., Carroll] first told the story’, and that the Dodo is thought to represent the author himself.

The dodo seems to have got its name from either Portuguese doudo ‘foolish, simple’ or Dutch dodoor ‘sluggard’; alternatively it may be onomatopoeic, mimicking the bird’s call (PDF). In any case, from the late 19thC the word was applied to people thought to be stupid or behaving stupidly: F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter about someone who ‘had been a dodo’ about something. But it’s the phrase dead as a dodo that resonates most strongly nowadays, and serves also as a reminder of a unique creature now lost.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

4 Comments

  • A lovely reminder of the dear old dodo. In my Canadian family, dead as a doornail is the usual saying there, but a dodo bird is a silly or stupid person, as in, “Don’t be such a dodo bird.” Or simply, “Don’t be a dodo.”

  • Thanks for your comment, Jesse. Dead as a doornail is more common in my experience too. I don’t hear the dodo ‘silly/stupid person’ sense very often at all.

  • Dodo with or without bird is very common in my family as a sort of euphemism for dummy.

    The identification of the Dodo with Dodgson is reinforced by the fact that he stuttered, causing him to pronounce his name Do-do-dodgson, and the fact that the other birds present, the Duck, the Lory, and the Eaglet, can be confidently identified with Canon Robinson Duckworth, who accompanied Dodgson and the Liddell sisters on the original boating expedition, and with Alice’s sisters Lorina and Edith. See Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice for references.

  • Thanks for your useful comment, John. My copy of The Annotated Alice was in storage at the time of writing the post, unfortunately. Having since liberated it I find Gardner’s pleasing note that when Dodgson’s biography entered the Encyclopaedia Britannica “it was inserted just before the entry on the Dodo”.

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