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Alice gets an English Lesson (1) : Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, and it turns out that she has been using words wrong all her life.
Alice gets an English Lesson
Part one

Abridged from ‘Through the Looking-Glass’, by Lewis Carroll.

Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty exhibits all the pride that goeth before his famous fall, and also the same proprietary attitude to the meaning of words fashionable in Westminster. Here, he has just boasted of his ‘un-birthday present’ from the White King and Queen, and Alice is puzzled.

“WHAT is an un-birthday present?”

“A present given when it isn’t your birthday, of course.”

Alice considered a little. “I like birthday presents best,” she said at last.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” cried Humpty Dumpty. “There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents — ”

“Certainly,” said Alice.

“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

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 argument’,” Alice objected.

“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.”

“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.”

* Humpty Dumpty is a character from a children’s rhyme. Lewis Carroll gives it as follows, noting that the last line doesn’t scan:

HUMPTY Dumpty sat on a wall:
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty in his place again.

The rhyme does not mention that Humpty Dumpty has anything to do with eggs; Lewis Carroll (and his illustrator Tenniel) can claim credit for having established that connection. Nor does Carroll say that Humpty actually is an egg, only that he looked like one, and that Alice could not decide whether he was wearing a cravat around his neck or a belt around his waist, which Humpty found most provoking.

Abridged from ‘Through the Looking-Glass’, by Lewis Carroll.

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Picture: © Sea, Sand and Sky, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0. View original
The Norman keep of Colchester Castle in Essex. The story goes that in 1648, during the Civil War, a Royalist force in Colchester was besieged by the Parliamentarians, and the Royalists’ pride and joy, a large cannon mounted on the city walls and nicknamed Humpty Dumpty, was dethroned. It was so broken, that not all the King’s men could repair it, nor all his horses restore it to its position. A wonderful tale, making it all the more disappointing that it cannot be traced back any earlier than 1996. The rhyme itself dates back no further than the close of the 18th century; no historically reliable explanation of it has ever been found.
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