Wordplay: Unpacking Lewis Carroll’s Linguistic Suitcase

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Shakespeare and Chaucer are credited for coining some of today’s most popular phrases (respectively: dwindle, gossip, moonbeam; and twitter, scissors, snort). But when it comes to linguistic concoctions, imaginative children’s writer and author of Alice and Wonderland, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll), has contributed some of the most colorful neologisms (newly coined words) to the English language.

Carroll’s linguistic fame comes from coining the “portmanteau word.” Although Carroll dod not originate the word “portmanteau” itself, he was the first to use it to describe a linguistic blend of two words that relate to a singular concept, much like a portmanteau suitcase that splits into two distinct compartments when opened. 

In Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Alice asks Humpty Dumpty what the words slithy and mimsy mean.  His reply changed linguistic history:

Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.

With the huge success of Carroll’s Alice books during the mid-19th century, portmanteau words became very popular, and they are still as amusing and popular today.

So the next time you’re chillaxing and eating a ginormous brunch with a frenemy on a glitzy glamping trip, thank Lewis Carroll for your knowledgebase of portmanteau words!

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Some Words Coined by Lewis Carroll


to exclaim exultingly with a noisy chuckle or snort



to move heavily



angry or fuming



A quick-moving creature that appears in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass



a fantastical and frightening creature in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass



to snort or act snidely, an imaginary animal in Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark



a dangerous variety of snark



great, wonderful, fabulous



miserable, flimsy, weak



slovenly, careless



voracious, sharp, or deadly


Join the frabjous holiday fun with family-friendly musical Alice in Wonderland, playing at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through December 30.


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