Lots of “Laughing” and no “Grief”: the Alice Books and Lewis Carroll’s Play on Words

See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alice_par_John_Tenniel_04.png, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Alice Books”—Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Saw There may have their hidden meanings and puzzles which one may need an annotated edition to figure out, but one of my favourite things about these books, which never fails to delight even a casual reader like me, is Lewis Carroll’s play on words—his use of alternative meanings, pronunciations, and sounds to make the narrative humorous.

One of the funniest instances of Carroll’s “wordplay” in these books is “The Mock Turtle’s Story” where the Mock Turtle and Gryphon relate to Alice, their experiences at school in the sea. Their school master was called “tortoise”, for as they said, “he taught us (‘ˈtɔː(r)təs’)”. And the subjects they studied included Reeling and Writhing (Reading and Writing), Mystery (History), Seaography (Geography), and Drawling (Drawing) with the classical master teaching them “Laughing and Grief” (Latin and Greek). One can only imagine what the different branches of arithmetic would have contained—“Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision”, lessons that people unfortunately know even if not “taught” in school. “Lessons” in the sea, as they are pronounced, “lessen” from day to day, “ten hours the first day…nine the next and so on”. Other facets of life under the sea are equally amusing with boots and shoes being made of “soles and eels” and done with the “whiting” (why else would it be called that, after all?). And in this world, “no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise (purpose)”.

Of course, life on land in Carroll’s world is no less fun with even a mouse bringing a smile to our face, when trying to help Alice and the others drenched by the pool of her tears, by giving them “the driest thing”, he knows—a lecture on William the Conqueror.

The “Live Flowers” in Looking Glass world aren’t ever frightened at being outside alone for they are protected by the tree in the middle, which can “bark” and say “bough-wough” (why else would its branches be called “boughs”?). They can talk unlike other garden flowers since their “beds” are hard; were their beds “soft” like ordinary garden flowers, could they do anything but sleep?

At one point in Through the Looking Glass, Alice remarks, “The question is…whether you can make words mean so many things?” As we see in these books, Lewis Carroll certainly can, and does so with great wit and humour.