My Favorite Alice in Wonderland Quote

Expert Author Eric Hilton

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, are full of quotable lines, but my favorite quote is this one from Humpty Dumpty:
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'
On its face, this sounds like the purest nonsense, but it's actually a deeply philosophical statement. For the sake of clarity, or even just basic communication, we do need to define the terms we use, but the meanings of words change all the time; language is not a fixed set of words, definitions, collocations and syntax--all of these elements are in a more of less constant state of flux. Obviously, language has to continually evolve because the world around us, and our perception of it, is continually evolving.
Nonetheless, I often use this quote to chide people who don't seem to understand the meaning of particular words, but even so are not shy about using them with reckless abandon. I'll say to them, "You must follow the Humpty Dumpty school of language," and then follow up with the quote (I can sometimes be pretty obnoxious). Many people are unknowing adherents of the Humpty Dumpty school of language. "Socialism", for example, is one of the most misunderstood and misused words in recent history. Webster's defines it this way:
1. a theory or system of social organization which advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole. 2. procedure or practice in accordance with this theory. 3. (in Marxist theory) the stage following capitalism in the transition of a society to communism, characterized by the imperfect implementation of collectivist principles.
Ignoring, or simply ignorant of, the dictionary meaning of the word, people are wont to cry, "That's socialism!" about any number of things that are nothing of the sort. For example, socialized medicine is no more socialism than was the National Socialist German Workers' Party. I think this is an instance where words matter, and that anyone who uses the word "socialism" should be aware that they are talking about a system that is not substantively different from communism. Alice, in her conversation with Humpty Dumpty, voices some skepticism about the validity of his defining words to suit himself, remarking that,
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
But Humpty is unperturbed by her doubts. He answers,
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'
I think the egg has a point here. After all, communication is a two-way street, and it is encumbent upon the listener to infer what the speaker means by his or her words. And to give decriers of socialism their due, we often call countries like the U.K. or France, in which tax dollars bear the brunt of the cost for things like health care and education, "socialist" even though they're not, at least according to the dictionary definition of the word. As happens with many words, the meaning of "socialism" has changed over time. Therefore, Humpty Dumpty is not talking nonsense when he claims the right to define words for himself; finding new uses for words is part of the evolution of a language.
The Annotated Alice, a fascinating book written by one of the foremost authorities on Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner, has extensive notes and explanations on this exchange between Alice and Mr. Dumpty--and it seems that Lewis Carroll supported our ovoid friend's contention.
Besides being the author of the two most iconic children's books ever written, Lewis Carroll was a man of varied interests and accomplishments. In fact, considering that he was a mathematician, logician, inventor, photographer and author, he was something of a Renaissance man. One of the subjects that interested him was the philosophy of language. It is evident in his writings that he was actually expressing some of his thoughts on this subject through Humpty Dumpty. Gardner points out in The Annotated Alice that Carroll wrote the following in an article called "The Stage and the Spirit of Reverence":
"no word has a meaning inseparably attached to it; a word means what the speaker intends by it, and the hearer understands by it, and that is all."
And in his book, Symbolic Logic, he said that:
"'The Logicians'--take, on this subject, what seems to me to be a more humble position than is at all necessary. They speak of the Copula of a Proposition 'with bated breath'; almost as if it were a living, conscious Entity, capable of declaring for itself what it chose to mean, and that we, poor humans creatures, had nothing to do but to ascertain what was its sovereign will and pleasure and submit to it."
Alice, a small girl of only "seven years and six months," was puzzled and perplexed by Humpty Dumpty's seemingly nonsensical words but, according to Gardner, "Lewis Carroll was fully aware of the profundity in Humpty Dumpty's whimsical discourse on semantics."
If you'd like to find out more about Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice, then drop by my lens, The Annotated Alice at
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