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Reading a question relating to portmanteau words has prompted me to ask this question. The reason is that Charles Dodgson writing as Lewis Carroll included the line

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

in the nonsense poem Jabberwocky as part of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.

There are many strange invented words in the poem but some of them are explained later in a conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty including 'gyre', 'gimble' and Dodgson's new invention 'portmateau words' such as 'slithy' and 'mimsy'. 'Gyre' is defined as "to go round and round like a gyroscope" and 'gimble' as "to bore holes like a gimlet"

I've known and enjoyed the poem for years and, because "gyre" is said by Humpty Dumpty to be derived from "gyroscope", I've always pronounced it with a 'soft' g or [ʒ].

However I have heard several other people, including respected actors on commercial records, pronounce it with a 'hard' g or [g] thus producing alliteration between 'gyre' and 'gimble' which the soft g does not.

On looking up the etymology of 'gyroscope' I find that it is of French origin and that the French pronounce it with an even softer g than English speakers do. I also find that its origin is the Greek word γύρος (gyros, 'circle' or 'turn'). This starts with a gamma which the Greeks do not pronounce at all like a g in either French or English and certainly not like an English [g].

My question, finally, is this:

Was the word 'gyroscope' pronounced with a hard g [g] in Dodgson's time (second half of the 19th century), even if only at Oxford University, or am I correct in my pronunciation of 'gyre' producing only a very slight alliterative effect with 'gimble'?

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  • Is it so very strange? For one thing, pronunciation changes even within languages over time. For another, how a Roman speaks Greek words or a Gaul or Frank or Briton pronounces words of Greek, heard spoken by a Roman or Italian or a Saxon pronounces a word heard from a Norman from Norway via France will vary. And there is a host of such 'g' words: giant, genetics, gaol, geography, George.... – Tuffy Oct 15 '20 at 8:00
  • @Tuffy I don't think it's odd at all but 18th and19th century French seems to have had gyroscope with a soft g and gyroscope seems to have been imported directly and it certainly has a soft g now. I wanted to know whether gyroscope could have had a hard g in 19th century intellectual circles or whether Dodgson never intended gyre and gimble to alliterate. – BoldBen Oct 15 '20 at 18:33
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A Dictionary of the English Language: Containing the Pronunciation, Etymology, and Explanation of All Words Authorized by Eminent Writers from 1846 shows the word GYRE with a soft G, used as a noun meaning "a circular motion" or a verb meaning "to turn round."

Webster's condensed dictionary of the English language, with copious etymological derivations, accurate definitions, pronunciation, spelling, and appendixes for general reference, chiefly derived from the unabridged dictionary of Noah Webster, LL. D from 1884 shows the words GYRUS, GYRE, GYRAL, GYRATION, GYRATORY all with soft G.

Etymological and pronouncing dictionary of the English language, a British dictionary from 1874, shows a similar collection of GYR- words with soft G.

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  • I was today years old when I learned that I've been pronouncing GYRE incorrectly my entire life. – shoover Sep 23 '20 at 22:46
  • You are, by no means, alone: youtube.com/watch?v=Q_Um3787fSY – Greybeard Sep 23 '20 at 23:01
  • @Greybeard Yes, I think that's one of the recordings I was referring to, there seems to be quite a large corpus of them. I imagine that the alliteration of hard 'g's has proved too tempting for classically trained actors in spite of the internal evidence in the book. – BoldBen Sep 24 '20 at 0:40
  • @shoover Thanks for that, and interesting that 'gyre' appears in a dictionary twenty-five years before the publication of Looking Glass yet Dodgson had Humpty Dumpty give a definition of it as though it was his own invention. – BoldBen Sep 24 '20 at 0:46
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    'Lewis Carroll' himself stated that gyre and gimble should be pronounced with a hard g (See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jabberwocky - under Lexicon). – Kate Bunting Sep 24 '20 at 7:44

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