The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Slithy’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Anyone who loves nonsense literature can surely tell us the origins of the rather wonderful word ‘slithy’. But let’s make it a little more interesting and turn it into a multiple-choice quiz question. Who gave us the word ‘slithy’?

a) A man named Shakespeare
b) A man named Whately
c) A man named Lear
d) A man named Carroll

The answer, surely, is d) A man named Carroll, right? After all, Lewis Carroll wrote the poem ‘Jabberwocky’, and that’s where we encounter the glorious word ‘slithy’, right in the poem’s memorably zany opening line.

But the word ‘slithy’, in fact, already existed when Carroll used it. However, since he was possibly unaware of its prior existence, it might be fair to say that he ‘coined’ it without … well, without actually coining it.

This is because, although Lewis Carroll made the word ‘slithy’ famous in his nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’, and can be said to be the writer who put this word on the literary map, as it were, he wasn’t the first person to use the word.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites one ‘W. Whately’ as the earliest one to use the word ‘slithy’. William Whately (1583–1639) was a Church of England clergyman and puritan preacher. In 1622, his book God’s Husbandry was published, containing the following sentence: ‘We make no greater matter of the lower degrees of sinne, and grow slithy, and fashionable, and dead in our confessions.’

The word was intended as a variant of ‘sleathy’, which means ‘slovenly’ or ‘careless’. Sleathy is, in turn, from the Old Norse slœ́ða meaning ‘to drag or trail’, hence the Norwegian word slöda, which means ‘to work carelessly’.

This word is now obsolete, at least in the sense that William Whately used it. But what of Carroll’s coining – or, perhaps, re-coining – of the word?

Since the word ‘slithy’ was not widely known at the time, Lewis Carroll probably independently invented the word (or thought he was inventing it, leastways) when, in his 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass, he put ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’ together to form the word, ‘slithy’:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.

This stanza is repeated at the end of the poem, which tells the story of a bold young adventurer (a young knight earning his spurs, perhaps?) who leaves home to go and fight the fearsome Jabberwock, a fictional beast dreamt up in Carroll’s fertile imagination. The hero’s father tells him to beware the Jabberwock as well as several other imaginary creatures, the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch.

Carroll had a penchant for such formations, and even invented the rather eccentric-sounding term ‘portmanteau word’ to describe such words. Humpty Dumpty describes such word formations to Alice: ‘You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

And ‘Jabberwocky’ did give us a couple of other words which are even more famous than slithy – and which, moreover, we can be sure Carroll was the first to coin.

These words are ‘chortle’, which is a combination of ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’ and describes a snorting laugh; and ‘galumph’, which means to march or move around confidently or, indeed, noisily, and which is thought to be a combination of gallop and triumphant.

In fact, there’s a third word, and it features in that famous opening (and closing) stanza, although, as with slithy, Carroll both did and didn’t coin it. The word ‘mimsy’, which also features in the poem, means ‘flimsy and miserable’ (there’s another portmanteau for you, as Humpty Dumpty crows to Alice).

Carroll did coin the word mimsy, but when the word mimsy is used in everyday speech it’s usually in a slightly different sense which is derived from the word mim, and that’s been around since the sixteenth century. It means ‘reserved or restrained in manner or behaviour, esp. in a contrived or priggish way; affectedly modest, demure’ (OED). There may be some overlap between these two mimsies, but it’s worth noting that the OED lists them as two separate entries, implying distinct etymologies.

In other words, the more familiar mimsy was derived from mim and then formed off the back of other words such as ‘clumsy’. But Carroll used his preferred portmanteau technique to arrive at his ‘mimsy’.

The poem, by the way, is called ‘Jabberwocky’, not ‘The Jabberwocky’. The monster in the poem is ‘the Jabberwock’; the poem is ‘Jabberwocky’. Think of it as the nonsense equivalent of someone writing a poem titled ‘Monstrous’ which features ‘The Monster’. Except, of course, Carroll’s is catchier.

Although ‘Jabberwocky’ was first published in Through the Looking-Glass in 1871, the first stanza was actually written and printed by Carroll in 1855 in a little private periodical called Mischmasch, which Carroll (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) compiled to entertain his family.

Carroll invented the term portmanteau word , but of course, the word ‘portmanteau’ predated him. A ‘portmanteau’ is ‘a leather trunk for clothes etc., opening into two equal parts’, comes from the French porter, ‘carry’, and manteau, meaning a mantle or ‘cloak’. The plural can be either portmanteaus or portmanteaux.