Jabberwocky is perhaps the best nonsense poem written in the English language. Author Lewis Carroll included it in his children’s book, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. In the poem Carroll makes liberal use of portmanteau, the blending of two or more words (and their meanings) into one.
Although nonsensical, the poem is structured using rules of classic English poetry. It is written in rhymed quatrain format with iambic metered verse.
On an initial reading, many of Carroll’s words baffle the mind. What actions, for instance, do the verbs “gyre” and “gimble” signify, or the adjective “frumious”? Thankfully, Carroll himself offered a few definitions to enable readers to decipher various phrases. For example, chortle is a blend of chuckle and snort. Armed with this knowledge, the studious reader is able to tease out the meaning of the lines of verse—to a point. Through repetitive wrestling with the poem the reader begins to infer meaning, much in the same way that the student with a rudimentary knowledge of a foreign language garners the gist of a passage that he doesn’t fully comprehend.
One of the first books I purchased when I embarked on the study of medicine was a text of medical terminology. Like most professions, medicine has a jargon all its own: a vocabulary which must be mastered if one wishes to understand its basic concepts. I quickly learned that the suffix –itis meant inflammation of, while –osis referred to the condition of. Ectomy denoted an excision or cutting out; hence the treatment of an inflamed appendix—appendicitis—was the surgical excision of it—an appendectomy. (Incidentally, it is the general surgeon who performs this operation, wielding his vorpal blade in snicker-snack fashion.)
At the outset these words seemed uffishly strange, almost otherworldly. Initially, it was an arduous task to learn them. Yet through constant use I gradually mastered their meanings as I grappled with my medical apprenticeship.
One danger all clinicians face is assuming that patients understand medical jargon. We can be too quick to interject our professional vocabulary into explanations of medical conditions, procedures and treatment, burbling on about borborygmi; and find ourselves met with mimsy stares and vacant looks. It is always best to explain medical concepts as though speaking to a child. Even the most complex procedures can be broken down into simple steps. Otherwise the patient is left groping in the dark, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Sometimes the patient or a significant other might interject some manxome meaning on a par with that of Carroll’s poem.
Here I am reminded of the historical information provided by the wife of a man who presented to the emergency room with an acute myocardial infarction (heart attack). “Well, doc,” she explained, “it was like this. First off, he got high blood. They kept on checking him with the cuff, but it wouldn’t come down, so they put him on a water pill. When that didn’t help, they x-rayed his chest, which showed he had a big heart. He got worse and worser, and they took more and more x-rays; and they showed that his heart was getting bigger and bigger, until finally there just weren’t no more room in his chest for his lungs to breathe—and that’s when they put in a spacemaker.”
Later, she was overheard speaking on the telephone, imparting the sad news that her husband of forty years had passed away from a massive internal fart.
This might not be jabberwocky, but to my mind, it comes frabjously close.