Freeing the Jabberwock: On JABBER, The Jabberwocky Engine
Neil Hennessy

“This is privileged information. It places the poet in the same vanguard of research as physics, molecular chemistry, and pure mathematics.” Chris Dewdney


The JABBER engine begins with a screen full of floating letters. When a letter comes into contact with another letter, a calculation occurs to determine whether they bond according to the likelihood that they would appear contiguously in the English lexicon. Letters accumulate in this fashion until the screen is filled with floating nonsense words.


Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonate sound poem is ostensibly nonsense, however it still sounds German. Even when trying to create nonsense, we unconsciously fall into the comfortable linguistic patterns of our mother tongue. When we hear language that we recognize as our own, the semantic is only one effect that signals familiarity. If common syllables of English are combined in a random fashion, the results are still recognizable as English.

The most prominent example of this phenomenon in English is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ from Through the Looking Glass, which also provides the most common model for the creation of neologisms. Alice is bewildered by the poem, and turns to Humpty-Dumpty to help her interpret the hard words. She asks him what slithy means, and Humpty-Dumpty responds: “Well, ‘SLITHY’ means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word”. The portmanteau word is a mixture of bits and pieces of multiple words that are put together in a manner that conforms to the rules of English word formation. The words are pronounceable and familiar, although their meaning must be guessed at through a whimsical etymology (a ’patymology, perhaps).

That Humpty-Dumpty must also define ‘lithe’, one of the constituent words of ‘slithy’, is significant in that it demonstrates that the effect of neologism is present whenever we encounter any unfamiliar word. The words of our language have been naturalised so that we have a comfortable relation to a fixed set of letter combinations. Neologism disrupts this familiarity. JABBER codifies and automates the disruption of neologism so that each iteration of the generator provides a further estrangement from our language. The unfamiliar smuggled into our language in the guise of the familiar.

JABBER falls somewhere between the sound poetry of Schwitters and the nonsense poetry of Carroll: the words are assembled from bits of other words as in ‘Jabberwocky’, but like the Ursonate the words are constructed with no inherent semantic value.


The analogy between the formation of words and the formation of chemical compounds has a long tradition in Western philosophy. In the Theatatus Socrates relates: “Methought that I too had a dream, and I heard in my dream that the primeval letters or elements out of which you and I and all other things are compounded, have no reason or explanation”. Although the letter has no reason or explanation, laws exist to combine them to form compounds. The chemical analogy is embedded within the Greek language: “The Greek word for alphabet, stoicheia, also carries the meaning elements with all the cosmological associations of that term. For the Greeks, the letters had an atomistic and elemental character. The letters were indecomposable: there was no smaller, more significant, or more basic elements of the cosmic order. It was from these units that the material form of the universe, and the natural world, was constructed” (Drucker, The Alphabetic Labyrinthe 111).

Lucretius makes a similar analogy, but to different ends: “At a key moment in De Rerum Natura Lucretius draws the analogy between atoms and letters. In Book One he explains: ‘basic bodies take a certain structure, / And have defined positions, and exchange / Their blows in certain ways. The same bodies, / With only a slight change in their structure, / Are capable of forming wood or fire. / Like letters in the words for these same things, / Ignes and lignum: with slight transpositions, / They can be nominated ‘flames’ or ‘beams’. ’ Atoms then are to bodies what letters are to words: heterogeneous, deviant, and combinatory” (McCaffery & Rasula, Imagining Language 532).

JABBER falls somewhere between the determined world of Plato and the indeterminate world of Lucretius: the indivisible letters constantly enact Lucretius’ minimal swerve of the clinamen in their random meanderings, yet when they collide they follow the laws of combination like the compounded elements of Plato. JABBER uses letter-atoms to form the word-molecules of an alien world whose language is English spoken through a fun-house telephone.

Artificial Intelligence

The 40 phonemes of English are represented by combinations of 26 letters, and these combinations are governed by transcriptions of spoken language. This over-simplifies the complex historical processes of orthography, but it is the implicit assumption of an ahistorical investigation of orthography, as Bök tells us: “Serres argues that all laws for combining (foedera coniunctorum) only arise after the fact of combining (coniuncta foederum) so that, in effect, the detection of order is simply the hindsight of chaos: ‘The laws of nature come from conjugation; there is no nature but that of compounds. In the same way, there are the laws of putting together letters-atoms to produce a text. These laws, however, are only federation. The law repeats the fact itself: while things are in the process of being formed, the laws enunciate the federated’” (Bök, 'Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science 95 n.14).The laws for combining letters inhere as latent information in the words in the lexicon – information that can be retrieved.

Once the laws are discovered, new words can be synthesised. Serres provides an uncanny description of JABBER in operation: “The alphabetical proto-cloud is without law and the letters are scattered at random, always there as a set in space, as language; but as soon as a text or speech appears, the laws of good formulation, combination, and conjugation also appear” (qtd. Bök 84).The lexicon contains the laws of good combination, and JABBER learns and then applies those laws to the alphabetical proto-cloud to fill in the gaps between the words in the dictionary.

RACTER is one of the most famous Natural Language Generators, and the author of the only book entirely written by a computer, The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed. JABBER operates similarly to RACTER: whereas RACTER combines words according to grammatical rules to produce sentences, JABBER combines letters according to lexical rules to produce words.


When a class in the Girls’ Latin School in Boston asked Carroll’s permission to name their school magazine The Jabberwock, he replied:

Mr. Lewis Carroll has much pleasure in giving to the editors of the proposed magazine permission to use the title they wish for. He finds that the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wocer’ or ‘wocor’ signifies ‘offspring’ or ‘fruit’. Taking ‘jabber’ in its ordinary acceptation of ‘excited and voluble discussion,’ this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion.’ Whether this phrase will have any application to the projected periodical, it will be for the future historian of American literature to determine. Mr. Carroll wishes all success to the forthcoming magazine.

In the poem “Jabberwocky” the result of the result of much excited discussion is that the excited discussion is slain. In a less torturous syntax, what is most remarkable about the portmanteau Jabberwocky is that Carroll destroys it. That this is so should come as no surprise, since it accords with the long-standing interpretation of the relationship between Lewis Carroll’s fantasy and Charles Dodgson’s logic: Carroll’s fantasy is the grotesque result of not attending to the laws of Dodgson’s logic. The dangerous terrain of nonsense is only traversed to reinforce the safe domain of sense.

The first stanza of Jabberwocky was written by Carroll many years before the Alice books, and published in one of the private periodicals he created for his nieces and nephews as “A Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry”:

Twas brillig and the slithy toves,

Did gyre and gambol in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

The stanza contains 10 nonsense words, and in his original explanations of the words, only a few of them are portmanteaus. The rest are pure inventions. Tove is not derived from any other words, and in Carroll’s explanation is “a species of Badger. They had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag; lived chiefly on cheese”. The word tove has no etymology to authorize this interpretation, and exists as a creature of pure fantasy.

When we examine the poem Jabberwocky, we see that the density of nonsense words in the first stanza (which is repeated as the last stanza) is far greater than that of the remainder of the stanzas. In fact, if we include the title of the poem in the count for the first stanza we get 11, which is equal to the total number of new nonsense words introduced in the next 5 stanzas. So we go from a density of 11 nonsense words in the first stanza, to an average of just over two nonsense words per stanza in the remainder of the poem. Of the 11 nonsense words in the remainder of the poem, seven of them are adjectives, one is an adverb, and 3 are nouns.

After reading the poem, Alice claims “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate”. We are not surprised that Alice figures out the action in the poem, because after the first stanza she has to contend with so few nonsense words, and more than three quarters of them are adjectives. The first and last stanza are the ones that fill her head with unknowable ideas, and it is the middle that brings Alice clarity.

In Martin Gardiner’s excellent annotated edition of Alice’s adventures, he claims “few would dispute the fact that ‘Jabberwocky’ is the greatest of all nonsense poems in English” (192). I must count myself among those few. If Carroll’s poem is so great a work of nonsense, why is there so little nonsense in it? In fact, if we compare the structure of Through the Looking Glass the book with that of ‘Jabberwocky’ the poem, we see that the looking glass poem is in fact the inverse image of the book. In Through the Looking Glass Alice begins in the sensible world, enters the nonsense world, and then returns to the sensible world. In ‘Jabberwocky’ we begin with nonsense, then enter into a world of sense where nonsense is killed, and then end with the castrated repetition of nonsense.

The only glimpse we have of a looking glass language occurs in the first and last stanzas of Jabberwocky. What I propose to do in my current writing project is transform Through the Looking-Glass into Through the Larfing-Grell by replacing every non-deictic word in the looking glass world into looking glass language. Then Alice’s journey into nonsense will be mirrored by the transition to the language of nonsense. Each replacement word will share formal properties with its source word: it will begin with the same letter, have the same number of letters, and the same number of syllables. But it will be a nonsense word produced by the JABBER engine. And not the sensible portmanteau words like ‘slithy’, but the nonsense of ‘toves’.

In The Logic of Sense Gilles Deleuze identifies the most common creators and users of portmanteau words as poets, children, and madmen, and asks how can we justify this grotesque trinity? His description of the problem acts as an uncanny description of the project of Through the Larfing Grell: “the problem is a clinical problem, that is, a problem of sliding from one organization to another, or a problem of the formation of a progressive and creative disorganization. It is also a problem of criticism, that is, of the determination of differential levels at which nonsense changes shape, the portmanteau word undergoes a change of nature, and the entire language changes dimension” (83).

Lewis Carroll may have killed the Jabberwocky, but with the JABBER engine and Throught the Larfing Grell I am resurrecting the Jabberwocky to let it run amok.