Word of the Week: Galumph

Galumph – Linguistic Wonderland

Galumph: Move in a clumsy, ponderous, or noisy manner. Isn’t that just fabulous?

The word itself seems to carry a lilt which mirrors its meaning splendidly. And, what’s even more fabulous, is that it’s pretty easy to account for why this ‘informal’ verb is so captivating.

In 1871, ‘galumph’ carried the sense of ‘prance in triumph’ – it was coined by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, published that year, his sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It took off almost immediately: after a complete flatline up to 1900, its usage had reached a peak by the 1940s, and has remained fairly level to date, after a brief low point in the 1960s. Though some dictionaries still hint towards its original sense, such as Collins (‘to leap or move about clumsily or joyfully’), most now show that its chief usage these days is to describe a heavy or clumsy, as opposed to a triumphant, gait.

Etymologists suspect that Carroll, in true Mad Hatter style, merged ‘gallop’ and ‘triumph’.

It is in this text that we find the Tweedledum and Tweedledee episode, and the renowned nonsense-poem, Jabberwocky, in which ‘galumph’ is not the only creative coinage:

‘One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.’

In this short passage alone, we can see the verb used to describe the action of the Jabberwock’s slayer, as well as the first ever instances of ‘vorpal, ‘frabjous’, and ‘chortle’. ‘Vorpal’ isn’t even listed in the Oxford Online English Dictionary, but Dictionary.com defines it as ‘deadly’, with its origin simply being ‘created by Lewis Carroll to describe a sword’. So we can’t even guess how he came up with that one.

The second, ‘frabjous’, means ‘wonderful, elegant, superb or delicious’, and etymologists guess that Carroll intended to suggest ‘fabulous’ and/or ‘joyous’. Though that probably hasn’t enjoyed as much renown as ‘chortle’, or even ‘galumph’, I’d definitely sign a petition for its revival.

‘Chortle’, probably the most successful of Carroll’s neologisms in terms of present-day usage, acts as both a noun and a verb, meaning ‘to laugh in a noisy, gleeful way’ or ‘a noisy, gleeful laugh’, and it’s probably a blend of ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’. Who knew.

And Carroll certainly isn’t the only author to introduce new words into the medley that is the English language. From Orwell we have ‘doublethink’, from George Bernard Shaw we have ‘superman’ (a translation of the German ‘Übermensch’ used by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche), from Coleridge we have ‘intensify’, and so on.

Shakespeare himself is probably the biggest contributor, and certainly the best known for it, with many of his original witticisms having now reached cliché status. And speaking of ‘witticisms’, we didn’t actually have a word for those until English poet John Dryden made one, modelled on ‘criticism’ with the adjective ‘witty’, in his musical stage adaptation of Paradise Lost, called The Stage of Innocence.

I’ll leave you with his tentative introduction:

‘A might Wittycism, (if you will pardon a new word!)’

I think we can always do a little more than ‘pardon’ a new word.


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