Humpty & Alice:Dialogue on Definitions

Thu, 30 Jun 1994 09:16:36 CDT

A recent exchange between T. Benke and D. Read alluded to Lewis Carroll
on the subject of definitions. This is one of my favorite Carroll
passages--from *Through the Looking Glass*, a dialogue between Alice and
Humpty Dumpty, who turns out to be difficult to engage in civil
conversation. Humpty has just informed Alice that the cravat he is
wearing is an "unbirthday gift" from the White King and Queen. An
"un-birthday present," he explains is "a present given when it isn't
your biirthday, of course." When Alice declares her preference for
birthday presents, Humpty assures her that she doesn't know what she is
talking about, and offers, as proof, the argument that you can get
unbirthday presents 364 days a year, birthday presents, only one. He
concludes triumphantly, "There's glory for you!" "I don't know what you
mean by 'glory,'" Alice objected. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.
"Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice
knock-down argument for you!'" "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice
knock-down aargument," Alice objected. "When *I* use a word," Humpty
Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it
to mean--nothing more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether
you *can* make words mean so many different things." "The question is,"
said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all." Alice was too
much puzzled to say anything . . .
--Bob Graber