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Lewis Carroll: He Loved to Play with Language

Lewis Carroll loved to play with language and some of his most famous works included new words and language commentary.

By
Mignon Fogarty,

LewisCarroll_AliceinWonderland

Lewis Carroll was not only the author of Alice in Wonderland and other linguistically interesting books, but he was also a working mathematics professor at Christ Church College at Oxford under his real name Charles Dodgson.

In the dramatic comedy, Euclid and His Modern Rivals, one is said to be able to experience both Lewis Carroll the author and Charles Dodgson the mathematician because he employs literary techniques to make the argument that the modern mathematicians of his day are no better than Euclid. The story is set in Hell, where a mathematician named Minos has a discourse with a devil's advocate named Professor Niemand.

In Carroll's non-mathematical writings, you’ll find a number of inventive words and commentaries on language. One of my favorite parts of Through the Looking Glass is the following section, in which Carroll was likely the first person to use the word pretend to mean “children playing make believe.” (1) I also like it because Alice is having a usage argument with her sister about singulars and plurals.

“Kitty, dear, let's pretend—' And here I wish I could tell you half the things Alice used to say, beginning with her favorite phrase `Let's pretend.' She had had quite a long argument with her sister only the day before—all because Alice had begun with `Let's pretend we're kings and queens’; and her sister, who liked being very exact, had argued that they couldn't, because there were only two of them, and Alice had been reduced at last to say, `Well, you can be one of them then, and I'll be all the rest.’" 

Kitty clearly doesn’t understand the concept behind “pretend.” 

Alice also doesn't hesitate to create new forms of words. Although she should have said things were becoming “more curious,” she is, of course, well known for saying things were becoming “curiouser and curiouser.”

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