What is truly curious is that after 148 years, Alice in Wonderland is still read and loved by adults and children alike. So too is the companion book, Through the Looking Glass. More curious still is how the language of Alice continues to reverberate in today’s speech. We use and know many expressions first found in those children’s books.
For example, in the 2012 novel, A Place of Hiding, mystery author, Elizabeth George, wrote, “He was experiencing a decidedly down-the-rabbit hole sort of moment.” George doesn’t explain “down-the-rabbit hole.” She doesn’t have to. Readers will know whence it came and what it means.
The award-winning Canadian magazine, Walrus, quotes Through the Looking Glass in every issue. Inviting readers to submit letters, Walrus says, “The time has come, the Walrus said, ‘to talk of many things.’” Walrus insists it isn’t named after the walrus in The Walrus and the Carpenter (Through the Looking Glass) but is, rather, named for the Canadian animal.
Other common expressions originating in the Alice books are, “Off with their heads,” “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,” “It was the best butter,” “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop,” “Un-birthday.”
Some sayings, Lewis Carroll (1832-98) took from usage of his day — “Love makes the world go round,” “As large as life and twice as natural,” for instance.
Several times, he brings up the absurd idea of flying pigs, a notion not unique with him although it did originate in the 17th century. Today, we employ it this way: “I’ll win the lottery when pigs fly.” Carroll wrote, “I think I have a right to think,” said Alice. “Just about as much right,” said the Duchess, “as pigs have to fly.”
Carroll also invents words, words like, “Jabberwocky,” and “brillig,” and employs words in unusual ways. Humpty Dumpty explains such usage. “When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty, “It means just what I choose it to mean.”
Carroll delighted in wordplay of all kinds. The Alice books are rich in puns, and characters argue about clarity of meaning as well as word order.
Alice, challenging the possibility of living in a well, says, “But they were IN the well.”
“Of course they were,” said the Dormouse, “— Well in.”
Carroll, really named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, wasn’t a linguist. He was a mathematics lecturer at Christ College, Oxford. Inevitably, his fascination with language inspired nonsense regarding mathematics. The Mock Turtle’s description of his school subjects illustrates this.
“Reeling and Writhing, to begin with,” the Mock Turtle replied. “And then the different branches of Arithmetic — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Decision.”
“And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said Alice.
“Ten hours the first day, nine the next, and so on.”
“What a curious plan.”
“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked, “because they lessen from day to day.”
When you read Alice as an adult, you cannot miss Carroll’s remarkable use of language.
However, if your only knowledge of Alice comes from Disney, you will indeed miss it.