linguistics and lexicography Love English

Stories behind Words: chortle and galumph

www.wordle.netIt’s not that unusual for people to ask me how they can get a word into the dictionary. That’s easy, I tell them. Get lots of different people to use it in lots of different places and in it will go. Actually it’s not easy at all, as can be seen from the complete failure to catch on of the lists of words that people come up with every so often to fill a perceived gap in the language (you know the kind of thing I mean: you can see some of them here).

One person who was very good at getting words into the dictionary, though that was probably not his intention, was Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson, Victorian mathematician and author of two of the most popular and successful children’s books ever written. One of them, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There contains the nonsense poem Jabberwocky, which is the source of our two words.

To chortle is to laugh merrily, while to galumph is to move heavily and clumsily. Both are thoroughly established in the language, along with their derivatives:

I often chortle at things that leave others stony-faced.
A good chortle boosts our immune system by boosting T-cells.
When you’re around, the rest of us feel like galumphing giants.
They shove, they galumph by with their feet and huge bags.

Out of over 20 nonce words in the poem, only these two have become part of common usage, along with a meaning of burble that Carroll seems to have invented (“to say (something) murmurously or in a rambling manner”). Not a bad hit rate, but then we are talking about one of the geniuses of the English language. Less gifted word inventors are much less likely to be successful.

Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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