It’s all gibberish to me!

Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky” in Alice in Wonderland is a well known example of gibberish. But no one is quite sure where the word gibberish comes from.

A decade before the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There (1871), Carroll composed the first stanza of his now famous poem and printed it in Mischmasch, a periodical he wrote and illustrated for the amusement of his family. The piece was titled “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” and it read:

“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.”

Gibberish(1)Gibberish (or gobbledegook) is nonsense of the kind that Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll – the two never met, although they had close friends in common – brought to a fine art. The word gibberish is usually applied to speech, while gobbledygook is more often applied to writing.

The term gibberish is generally thought to be onomatopoeic. William Shakespeare used the verb “to gibber” in Hamlet, written around 1600. Horatio tells Barnardo that the ghost on the battlements is an ill omen and recalls that:

“In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.”

The word “gibber” must have been common enough to be understood by the audience of the time. Yet it does not appear in Henry Bradley’s edition of A Middle English Dictionary: Containing Words Used By English Writers From the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century (1891). This was the language of Chaucer from which Shakespeare’s vernacular was derived. Nor does it seem to have been a word in Warwickshire dialect.

Gibberish(2)The true origin of gibberish may go back to the name of an 11th century Arabian alchemist named or Jabir ibn Hayyan (circa 721 to 815), or Geber, a prominent Muslim polymath who invented a way of concealing the meaning of his writings from others, allowing his work to remain secret and protecting him from charges of heresy – punishable by death. In his Book of Stones, Geber himself writes that, “The purpose is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for.”

Neither Edward Lear nor Lewis Carroll wrote gibberish. They were early surrealists and a virtuoso amalgamation of the two, taken to literal and literary extremes, had to await James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake (1939) – which some critics think is Irish gobbledegook.

One person who did write gibberish was the British novelist and poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861-1907), whose mother was a member of the Jameson Whiskey family and a cousin of Gugliemo Marconi, and who learnt several languages including Greek and Hebrew. Despite its title, Coleridge’s mystical poem called “Gibberish” makes perfect sense:

“Many a flower have I seen blossom,
Many a bird for me will sing.
Never heard I so sweet a singer,
Never saw I so fair a thing.

She is a bird, a bird that blossoms,
She is a flower, a flower that sings;
And I a flower when I behold her,
And when I hear her, I have wings.”

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