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Let's Look At The Language

July 2, 2011

A frabjous Fourth of July to everyone!

If there's one date in history that every American can cite, it's the day that the Continental Congress gave its nod to the Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776. In an eerie punctuation to that great occasion, two of our most prominent Founding Fathers -- John Adams (the most outspoken advocate for the Declaration) and Thomas Jefferson (the principal writer of the Declaration) -- died on the same day exactly 50 years later: July 4, 1826. The last of the Founding Fathers to become president, James Monroe, died five years after that, on July 4, 1831.

It's interesting to note that on a date inextricably linked to American independence from Great Britain, there is a milestone event connected to a certain body of beloved literature, and it brings us right back to Jolly Old England. On July 4, 1862, English mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson invented the storyline for what would eventually be published as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1865) under the pen name Lewis Carroll. An exceptional piece of fantasy fiction, it was followed by the sequel "Through the Looking-Glass" in 1871.

These two novels are considered by many to be the apex of "nonsense literature," a genre that defies orthodox language and challenges logical thinking. It's one thing to be as clever with language and logic as Carroll was, but it's even more remarkable to weave the linguistically unique results into timelessly cherished tales. Carroll's uncommon talent is further evidenced by the contributions his fantastic language made to our conventional language. In the New Oxford American Dictionary, there are no fewer than seven entries for which the origin is a word "coined by Lewis Carroll." (Just try to invent a word that makes it into the dictionary. Good luck. But seven words? That's astonishing!)

Although all seven of these Carroll coinages passed the rigorous tests of time and real-usage research that qualified them for dictionary status, three of them are woefully underused: boojum ("an imaginary dangerous animal"), frabjous ("delightful; joyous") and snark ("an imaginary animal"-- used to refer to someone or something that is difficult to track down). I enthusiastically encourage you to use these wonderful words as often as you possibly can!

Chances are you're no stranger to the word chortle ("laugh in a breathy, gleeful way; chuckle"), which first appeared in "Through the Looking-Glass," presumably as a blend of "chuckle" and "snort." The term galumph is fairly familiar as well, as in "our golden retriever galumphed up the hill to greet us." As introduced in "Through the Looking-Glass," the word galumph implied "prance triumphantly" and was apparently a blend of "gallop" and "triumph."

Lewis Carroll was a master at blending old terms to create new terms, so it is only fitting that he himself came up with the term portmanteau word, which we now use to mean any word that blends the sounds and combines the meanings of two others -- for example, motel (from "motor" and "hotel") or brunch (from "breakfast" and "lunch").

Another of Carroll's coinages to find a home in the dictionary is a word popularized by the 1951 Disney film Alice in Wonderland, in which an unbirthday party is celebrated to the music of "The Unbirthday Song." (The word unbirthday is from the book "Through the Looking-Glass," but in the Disney movie, the unbirthday theme is written into the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, an event from the book "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.")

As Alice learned, everyone has 364 unbirthdays a year, but this weekend we'll forgo the "un-" and light up the skies for America's favorite anniversary: Happy birthday, USA!

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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