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I'm reading Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass" and I've found a famous poem Jabberwocky:

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

I've read some articles about that poem. All of them (for instance, this one) say that mimsy is an adjective, but they don't say why. I can't make head nor tail of the syntax of this sentence.

For example, a sentence with similar structure might look like this:

All gray were the wolves

But I guess that it is an incorrect form, and the correct form is:

All the gray ones were the wolves

So, is the form of using an adjective in the example above really correct? And why it can't be a noun (i.e. like in all wolves were the animals)? I really can't understand it.

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    It sounds like an adjective since it ends with a 'y'. – Mick Nov 8 '16 at 5:29
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    All sleepy were the wolves – tchrist Nov 8 '16 at 5:41
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    "All gray were the wolves" is technically correct, and "All the gray ones were the wolves" sounds even more strange to my ears, and conveys a different meaning (although, without context, both are fairly nonsensical to me). – Darren Ringer Nov 8 '16 at 14:00
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    Your example with "All grey were the wolves" becoming "All the grey ones were wolves" is incorrect. "All grey were the wolves" is just a simple inversion, and means "All the wolves were grey", not "All grey things were wolves." – David Richerby Nov 8 '16 at 16:04
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    "I can't make head nor tail of the syntax of this sentence" ... well, it is a nonsense verse, after all... :-) – Simba Nov 8 '16 at 17:17
138

At the suggestion of the kind commenter, let me discuss the syntax of

All mimsy were the borogoves

There are two possibilities. The first is that mimsy is a noun, in which case we have the structure

Subject Copulative-Verb Predicate-Complement

where

Subject = Noun Phrase All mimsy
Copulative Verb = were
Predicate Complement = Noun Phrase the borogoves

This pattern would obtain for recognizable nouns thusly:

All priests were the granters of indulgences.

The second possibility is that mimsy is an adjective. Ordinarily we would expect the same word order when the complement is an adjective, i.e.,

The borogoves were all mimsy

but it's possible to invert the order and put the adjectival complement all mimsy first, i.e., to have the order

Predicate-Complement Copulative Verb Subject

In recognizable words:

All rosy were the cheeks of the children.

This is a recognizably poetic style. Consider the lines from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass:

Brave, brave were the soldiers (high named to-day) who lived through the fight;
But the bravest press'd to the front and fell, unnamed, unknown.

In ordinary prose, we'd say "the soldiers were brave".

At the prompt of a second kind commenter, let me note that the modifier all doesn't help us figure out whether to choose noun or adjective for mimsy. (Perhaps this part of the sly whimsy of the Deacon Dodgson.) If we're thinking noun, then all is an acceptable as a universal determinative, as in

All soldiers are brave.

If we lean toward adjective, then all is acceptable as an adverbial modifier, as in

We are all excited.

(Note the ambiguity. In an intensifying role -- We are all very excited -- the Ngram viewer finds few examples in the 19th century, and it seems to be an American colloquialism. The universal role -- We are all of us excited -- is common and earlier.)

To decide, consider the following common* English adjectives, most of which are formed by adding the suffix -y to the related noun ending in s/se to get an adjectival form: ease->easy, nose->nosy, etc.

antsy artsy backwoodsy bitsy blousy blowsy1 bluesy booksy bossy bousy2 brassy busy3 cheesy choosy citrusy classy clumsy4 cosy5 creasy cutesy6 ditsy dressy drowsy7 easy flimsy8 flossy folksy fussy gassy glassy glossy gneissy goosy grassy greasy gutsy hissy kissy lossy lousy messy minstrelsy mossy mousy mussy newsy noisy nosy outdoorsy primrosy prissy queasy9 rosy sassy sudsy teensy10 tipsy tricksy weensy11 woodsy wussy

Now compare this to a list of common** English nouns ending in -sy:

apostasy autopsy biopsy catalepsy controversy courtesy curtsy daisy dropsy dyspepsy ecstasy embassy epilepsy fantasy footsy geodesy gypsy heresy hypocrisy hypostasy idiosyncrasy isostasy jealousy leprosy narcolepsy necropsy palsy pansy pleurisy poesy pussy speakeasy whimsy

The countable nouns require a plural form to go with the determinative all and the plural verb were:

All autopsies were performed by the coroner.
All fantasies were repressed by the patients.

and so on. The noncountable nouns in the singular can take the preceding all, but they require a singular verb:

All fantasy is meaningless.
All courtesy is hypocritical.

Given the distribution favoring adjectives of words ending in -sy, the lexical likelihood of finding a related noun, the syntactic constraints on number, and the fact that this is a poem, where the subject/adjectival-complement order may be inverted, a fluent English speaker will consider that mimsy is an adjective meaning having the qualities of a mim, some noun unknown.


*I obtained my list here. Since I edited the results, and I'm going to argue by weight of vocabulary, I need to reveal my method. I avoided double counting by excluding some words formed by prefixing (e.g., aacatalepsy, discourtesy, nondrowsy, overbusy, rebiopsy, ultraglossy, uneasy).

**I eliminated technical (mostly medical) terms (biorhexistasy, cholecystolithotripsy, cholelithotripsy, dyschromatopsy, glacioisostasy, hemiachromatopsy, hemichromatopsy, hypnolepsy, lithotripsy, nephrolithotripsy).

‡ Those not related to common nouns are noted in the numbered notes, the content of which is from the OED. Those which have no known candidates for related nouns are in bold italic.

  1. blowsy coarse and flushed. From blowze, a bloated slattern
  2. bousy drunk. From bouse, liquor or a drinking bout
  3. busy No known related noun, from the Old English adjective besig
  4. clumsy probably from the now-obsolete clumse, eventually from a Scandinavian word meaning to benumb with cold. It had a number of pejorative uses as an adjective and an attributive noun.
  5. cosy "derivation unknown"
  6. cutesy No noun, from cute, an adjective
  7. drowsy From drowse, a fit of sleepiness, itself from the verb of the same spelling
  8. flimsy Derivation uncertain. The claim of film seems like folk etymology, especially given the adjective filmy. But the word flim is preserved as a fossil in flim-flam, and it’s possibly related to an Old Norse word flim meaning a mockery or lampoon.
  9. queasy "Of obscure history"
  10. teensy Likely from the obsolete tine, very small or something very small
  11. weensy No related noun. Likely from wee and a rhyme with teensy
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. If there are elements in moved comments and subsequent chat that belong in this answer, then such elements should be edited into this answer not left as ephemera. – tchrist Nov 11 '16 at 0:57
  • ᴍᴏᴅᴇʀᴀᴛᴏʀ ɴᴏᴛᴇ: Comments cannot be moved to chat a second time. Please use this posting’s chatroom for discussion. Further comments here will be deleted. – tchrist Nov 12 '16 at 20:12
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    Relevant meta discussion – Robert Harvey Nov 13 '16 at 17:27
40

Later in the book, Humpty Dumpty gives Alice an explanation of the odd words in the poem and he defines 'mimsy' as 'miserable and flimsy'. In other words, we know it is an adjective because Lewis Carroll intended it to be one.

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    I don’t think this is the whole answer. Most native English-speakers will understand mimsy to be an adjective on first reading the poem, without reading Carroll’s/Humpty’s explanation of it. Carroll’s/Humpty’s explanation confirms that this understanding really is the intended one — but it doesn’t explain why it’s the natural reading of the sentence. – PLL Nov 8 '16 at 11:34
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    "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."' Since Humpty Dumpty's meanings of words were explicitly personal, there could be other interpretations. Why not mime and whimsy, which can both be nouns? – Henry Nov 9 '16 at 13:52
  • I just realized that my own mental definition of it that I've had as a child (small and petty) was probably from miniature and whimsy. Huh. But OP is right, I never questioned but that it was adjectival. – Dewi Morgan Nov 9 '16 at 23:08
  • One of the points of the poem is to demonstrate how we easily understand grammar and word types even when the words are nonsense. No one needs to tell us what mimsy specifically means to infer that it's an adjective. – Barmar Nov 14 '16 at 17:19
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Fortunately, Carroll's own definition assigns the part of speech to 'mimsy'. Otherwise, the word might now be taken as an early and unprecedented appearance of the British regional 'mimsy', also an adjective, but with a somewhat different meaning, although latterly sometimes influenced by Carroll's coinage:

Prim; careful; affected; feeble, weak, lightweight.

["mimsy, adj.2 (and adv.)". OED Online. September 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/255344 (accessed November 08, 2016).]

This 'mimsy' is attested first in 1880; the etymology is given:

Apparently < MIM adj. + -sy (in CLUMSY adj., FLIMSY adj., TIPSY adj., etc.). Compare MIMSY adj.1, by which this word appears sometimes to be influenced.

(op. cit.)

The first part of the compound, 'mim', has a much earlier provenance, first appearing around 1586, and attested through 1991. It is also an adjective (and adverb), used regionally in Scottish and British English:

Reserved or restrained in manner or behaviour, esp. in a contrived or priggish way; affectedly modest, demure; primly silent, quiet; affectedly moderate or abstemious in diet (rare). Also (occas.) of a person's appearance.

["mim, adj. and adv.". OED Online. September 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/118631 (accessed November 08, 2016).]

However, Carroll himself was kind enough to differentiate between his 'mimsy' and the British regional 'mimsy'. As Humpty Dumpty explained to Alice, 'mimsy' is a portmanteau of 'flimsy' and 'miserable' (Through the Looking Glass, 1871):

Exactly so. Well, then, "mimsy" is "flimsy and miserable" (there's another portmanteau for you).

The portmanteau clearly amounts to something akin to 'unhappy', but if there was any doubt, that meaning is made explicit in Carroll's gloss of the first verse of "Jabberwocky", first published in Carroll's own literary magazine, Mischmasch, in 1855.

As mentioned by Carroll's nephew, Stuart Collingwood, who provides a facsimile of part of the gloss in an article in The Strand Magazine ("Before 'Alice' — The Boyhood of Lewis Carroll", 1899, p. 616), Carroll himself defined the eleven words in the verse that were not "pure, honest English":

facsimile of gloss for Jabberwocky

(op. cit.)

Collingwood's account gives the rest of Carroll's gloss, and also supplies a complete 'translation' of the first sentence (continuing from the facsimile):

gloss continued
gloss finished, plus 'translation'

The evidence from the 1855 Mischmasch, along with the evidence given by Humpty Dumpty in the 1871 Through the Looking Glass, leaves no doubt that 'mimsy' is an adjective. Without that evidence, 'mimsy' could well be a noun, verb or even a subdued interjection in poetic use.

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    It's interesting that many of Collingwood's definitions are different from the ones given by Carroll via Humpty Dumpty in Looking Glass. Perhaps Carroll changed them to make them more humorous and more accessible to children as he wrote the book. I also wonder whether 'gyaour' is supposed to be pronounced with a hard 'g' rather than the soft one derived from gyroscope. This would give the alliteration favoured by many performers when speaking the line '...did gyre and gimble in the wabe' and which is at odds with the Humpty definition of 'to go round and round like a gyuroscope' – BoldBen Nov 8 '16 at 10:47
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    Interesting that so many of us read 'borogove' as 'borogrove' (I say 'us' because I've done it myself). Even Collingwood makes the error. – Kate Bunting Nov 8 '16 at 10:49
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    When I changed my name, I came perilously close to winding up as "Borogrove"; an extremely literate and pedantic friend caught the error just in time. The error is natural; "-grove/-greave" and "-grave" (two unrelated etymologies, apparently) are not-uncommon suffixes in English, while "-gove" is not. – Russell Borogove Nov 8 '16 at 16:06
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Something that hasn't been mentioned yet: "all" here is being used as an adverb. Some examples of common English phrases using this construction:

  • all worked up (thoroughly excited or upset e.g. "She got all worked up at the idea of adopting a baby.")
  • all right (meaning in a satisfactory manner or to a satisfactory extent)
  • all ready/all set (meaning "fully prepared", e.g. "Toby, are you all ready for school?"

So, "the bogoroves were all mimsy" comes across as meaning "the bogoroves were thoroughly mimsy". Certainly, this is the construction that makes the most sense to a native ear.

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    I am sorry to see that this essential and, to me, obvious point has so few votes. – PJTraill Nov 9 '16 at 23:08
  • @PJTraill the question had been up for almost a day when I put this here, so I'm not expecting much. And of course no one has the time to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page :P. – Omnomnomnom Nov 9 '16 at 23:12
  • I know the feeling. – PJTraill Nov 9 '16 at 23:20
  • With a closer reading, it seems the top answer does eventually address this point. – Omnomnomnom Nov 10 '16 at 0:41
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    In most uses of this adverbial "all" (besides the set phrases given in this answer), it feels to me highly informal, and even like it is akin to that stigmatized interjection, "like" -- in fact, in most cases I can think of where someone says "[noun] was all [adjective]", I can easily imagine it being "[noun] was, like, all [adjective]" without the tone, register, formality, etc. changing. Does anyone know whether this "all" was informal to this extent (or even at all) in the varieties of English which Carroll was imitating? – echristopherson Nov 10 '16 at 20:15
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To add to the other answers...

The poem is a pastiche of heroic poetry such as Beowulf. This inversion is generally seen by native English speakers as old-fashioned/archaic. There are many other archaic constructions in the poem too - just in that first verse, "twas midnight" and "the slithy toves did gyre" are forms which were no longer in use in spoken English at the time Carroll wrote it.

Whilst this is amusing in its own right, it's also a dig at the Victorian poets who were (in all seriousness) writing heroic poetry and using these archaic constructions to try to add gravitas to their writing. Edward Lear did the same with some of his nonsense rhymes - The Cummerbund is a prime example, although Lear took it a step further by using genuine words. (Look up the actual meanings for the Indian words referenced!)

  • very nice, but i take exception to the use of "did". at least in American speech it's quite acceptable to use this form to add stress. for example, a teacher asks, "you didn't read the book, did you?" and the student can respond, "i did read the book". – A.Ellett Nov 12 '16 at 23:14
  • Fair point, although that's the modern use as an intensifier and particularly as a rebuttal. I believe Carroll was using it in its older sense as simply a form of the past tense, though - I don't see anyone saying "those slithy toves weren't gyring" which the author needed to contradict. :) – Graham Nov 14 '16 at 15:37
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If you embed the sentence as a complement, you have to change the word order:

*Henry thought that all mimsy were the borogoves.  
Henry thought that the borogoves were all mimsy.

This tells us that the original example has had its subject inverted, because subject-verb inversion applies only in root (unembedded) clauses. So we know that "the borogoves" is subject, and "were" agrees in number with that subject:

The borogoves were all mimsy.

If "mimsy" were a predicate noun, it would have to agree in number with the subject "the borogoves". Compare with a familiar noun:

*The houses were cottage.  
The houses were cottages.  

But adjectives in English do not have a distinct plural form,

*The houses were shuttereds.  
The houses were shuttered.  

So if mimsy were a noun, the original example would have had to be

The borogoves were all mimsies.  

"Mimsy" must be an adjective, since it doesn't agree in number with the subject.

  • The singular of 'mimsy' (plural noun) is perhaps 'moumsy' (on the loose model of 'mouse' > 'mice'). – JEL Nov 11 '16 at 19:15
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It's an example of poetic inversion. "The borogroves were all mimsy" wouldn't trouble you. Mimsy is an attribute of the borogroves. Writing it backwards makes no difference.

"The sky was blue" "Blue was the sky".

Poets (and Yoda) like doing that sort of thing.

protected by tchrist Nov 10 at 3:44

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