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What Does It Mean?

Lewis Carroll began his poem, The Jabberwocky, thus:

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

Does this mean anything?

It follows most of the conventions of English language, because we can distinguish:

• Nouns – toves, wabe, borogoves, raths
• Verbs – gyre, gimble, outgrabe
• Adjectives – slithy, mimsy, mome

But I don’t have any idea of what those words mean. I probably don’t try very hard to make sense of it because I know Lewis Carroll was a prolific writer of nonsense verse. It is not as though it couldn’t mean anything – it’s just that I don’t know how to interpret it. It could be a message in code – but I don’t know the code.

What if, in the obscure Carrollian language, the words had the following meanings as they applied to the mythical country of Nefaria:

Brillig – Those few days that cover the last Nefarian parliamentary session of the year

Slithy – Loquacious but indirect in their manner of speaking

Toves – Elected representatives to the Nefarian Parliament

Gyre – Insult

Gimble – Seek to belittle

Wabe- The Nefarian Parliamentary Chamber

Mimsy – Indignant

Borogoves – Members of the opposition

Mome – Supercilious

Raths – Government members

Outgrabe – Sneered

Translated thus, the passage reads:

`Twas the last few days of the parliamentary session, and the loquacious members
Did insult and seek to belittle each other in the chamber;
All indignant were the members of the opposition,
And the supercilious government members sneered.

Before, the passage sounded like gobbledygook. Now, if you read the lines with the interpretation I have given them, it describes a scene which we read about often in our newspapers.

However, does my subscribing such meanings to Carroll’s words reveal the real truth of the passage? Well, of course not. It remains my interpretation of it. (And I was starting to enjoy my little parody here and wondering who or what the Jabberwocky would turn out to be!)

So in the end, for something to be meaningful, I have to give it meaning. However, even if you were to accept my interpretation of the words, your interpretation of my interpretation will generally result, at least, in subtle differences between the meanings we ascribe to the same things – and sometimes those meaning will be vastly different!

What if we were to look at some words that were largely familiar to us? Would this still result in differences in the meaning we give them? This is almost always the case. It is largely because we view the world through our own particular world-view and we generally contrive (unconsciously) to make our observed world fit that mould.

We can work on achieving some shared meaning. But there is always much left open for individual interpretation.

Take the following:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

This is Gerard Manly Hopkins’ famous poem, The Windhover.
Most of my readers won’t have any difficulty in interpreting every word in this piece. But can you understand the thoughts and the images the poet is striving to convey? Unless you are a student of romantic poetry and have a reasonable knowledge of Hopkins I suspect you would have difficulty. Hopkins use of language is spectacular. He uses such devices as metaphors, assonance, onomatopoeia, alliteration, internal rhythm and what he called ‘inscape’ to produce some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. But I suspect it is still pretty obscure to the average reader. It is just as though some of his words were French – and you know no French! Or perhaps, even more correctly, you know all the words but can’t interpret the phrases and the paragraphs.
In the end we are faced with the fact that language is not absolute. Each word, each sentence, is subject to interpretation. So many words have multiple meanings. So many viewpoints create different interpretations. Attaching meaning to something is perhaps the most personal thing we do. Meaning derives from the individual persona, the individual world-view, the individual interpretation. Imagine the difficulty this creates for communications between individuals. It is almost impossible, as a result of these difficulties, to share the thoughts of another.
Sometimes it helps to have an interpreter. An interpreter is invaluable if you don’t speak the language. I tried to take that role above. But here again you were at my mercy and forced to make meaningful to you the interpretation I had ascribed to the passage.
Suppose I have heard the stirring Marsellais (the French National Anthem) and not knowing French wanted to know what the words meant.
The words (in French) of the first verse are:
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes !

Wikipedia reports that the English translation of the words from the website of the French Presidency is as follows:
Come, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear in the countryside
Those ferocious soldiers roaring?
They come up to your arms
To slit the throats of your sons and wives!
The following translation comes from the Library of Congress:
Ye sons of France awake to glory,
Hark,hark! What myriads bid you rise!
You children, wives and white-haired grandsires
Behold their tears and hear their cries (repeat)
Shall hateful tyrants, mischiefs breeding,
With hireling hosts, a ruffian band,
Affright and desolate the land,
While peace and liberty lie bleeding?
As you can see there is a vast difference in these interpretations. Conceding that the first is a more or less a literal translation and the second (in an attempt to produce a rhyming version) is a more liberal interpretation, both claim to be translations. You can see that there is vast scope for the individual to put their own stamp on any particular version. (This is a difficulty encountered with all translations but seems to have particular impact, and create some controversy, in the translation of religious texts!)
We need interpreters in many fields. As I intimated above, to appreciate Hopkins’ poem it would have been helpful to have had input from someone familiar with his works and the nuances of poetry in general.
Now for many of us quarks and bosons are just as arcane and unfamiliar as borogoves and raths. But many of us have been able to understand the basic concepts of science by reading the books of Paul Davies or Richard Dawkins and other popularisers of science, who through their interpretation and translation have made scientific concepts accessible to a broad audience.
But always the meaning we give to such things is uniquely ours. We can be guided, we can have gaps in our knowledge expanded by others, but in the end the final meaning is determined by us, alone. Each and everything we attempt to perceive or comprehend is coloured by the lense of our own worldview.

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  1. 5 Comment(s)

  2.   By Mark Brookes on Jan 13, 2010 | Reply

    And so as discussed in previous blogs, any attempt to define or explain “God” however comprehensive and conceptually sound is inevitably doomed to be inadequate, subject as it is to the limitations of the language in which it is written and the cultural perspective from which it comes – hence we see the main religious traditions convey the same important moral and spiritual teachings, but which remain open to manipulation and misunderstanding?

  3.   By Ted Scott on Jan 13, 2010 | Reply

    Oh, Mark – how wonderful it is to see your perceptiveness! If even half the world had your understanding how much better that world would be!

  4.   By Father Robin on Jan 13, 2010 | Reply

    But in the end a rational explanation for the world in the sense of a closed and complete system of logical truths is almost certainly impossible. We are barred from ultimate knowledge, from ultimate explanation, by the very rules of reasoning that prompt us to seek such an explanation in the first place. If we wish to progress beyond, we have to embrace a different concept of ‘understanding’ from that of rational explanation. Possibly the mystical path is a way to such an understanding. I have never had a mystical experience myself, but I keep an open mind about the value of such experiences. Maybe they provide the only route beyond the limits to which science and philosophy can take us, the only possible path to the Ultimate.

    Paul Davies, The Mind of God, conclusion

  5.   By Mark Brookes on Jan 14, 2010 | Reply

    I recall reading that the most appropriate description and expression of God is “Not this, not that”. Not very helpful I know! But a salutary reminder we have an imperfect understanding, and that we should be reluctant to claim that our particular belief system is uniquely and unilaterally true.

  6.   By Ted Scott on Jan 14, 2010 | Reply

    Well there is a certain commonality Mark, with your words and with the quote of Father Robin.

    You were probably recalling the words of Anthony De Mello when you wrote the above. He related that in the Indian tradition they used the Sanskrit words “Neti, neti,” when trying to describe God. This is translated as “Not that, not that.”

    It seems to have come to the realisation of many people from very different religious traditions that it is impossible to say what God is. Consequently there has been an attempt to approach the concept of God, not from what God is, but from what God is not. (I know you are familiar with the works of Karen Armstrong. She has related this concept quite well in a number of her books.)

    This approach goes under the name of Via Negativa, or “the Negative Way.” It is also known as Apophatic Theology..

    Many of the religious traditions have used this technique. It has been used in Greek Philosophy, as well as in Muslim, Christian,Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist writings.

    Famously, in the Christian tradition, it was expounded by St Thomas Aquinas.

    In the end, as Father Robin’s quote from Paul Davies attests, we are limited in what we can know directly. As I have argued elsehwere this is manifested in Mathematics by Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem and in Physics by Heisenbrg’s Uncertainty Theorem.

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