10 Everyday Phrases Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Made Popular

The Morgan Library & Museum

The Morgan Library & Museum

Have you gone down a rabbit hole lately? Did you, perhaps, happen upon this very post by going down an internet rabbit hole? Thanks to Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you have the exact words you need to describe your world-wide-web wanderings.

As it turns out, his wildly popular story is the source of many other common cultural phrases. So common, in fact, that even if you haven’t read Alice, you probably quote it all the time. (Much like you probably quote Zoolander all the time, except with more accuracy.) Follow us on a long, strange etymological journey where all paths lead back to Wonderland.

1. DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

Only a Tweedledee would contest that this is Carroll’s singular most important contribution to the English language—even if its meaning has morphed in modern times. This phrase as well as others “started appearing almost immediately after the book was first published” in 1865, says Carolyn Vega, curator of the Morgan Library’s exhibit "Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland," running through October 12. “It becomes a positive feedback loop. As these phrases get out into the world, you have this ramification of knowing about the story without having read it. And the phrases spread further.”

2. MAD AS A HATTER

That is to say, crazy—like, really, really crazy. Though the phrase had been in use since 1835 to describe an unusual medical condition affecting hat manufacturers (really!), everyone still knows it because Carroll was a marketing genius. “He was the first children’s book author to license his characters for use on other products, so the characters had individual lives,” says Vega. This leads to what many a childless aunt or uncle will recognize as the Frozen effect: “The characters become familiar to a group of people wider than the readership of the book,” Vega explains. And one of the reasons the story became so popular, Vega posits, is “because it doesn’t end in a moral or a lesson. All children’s writing up to that point did.”

3. CHESHIRE CAT GRIN

Much as with our buddy the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat has been ingrained in the membrane. The adjectival phrase is, once again, associated with a specific character. So whenever someone describes a person as grinning like a Cheshire cat, we can picture that huge, mischievous—and slightly unsettling—smile.

4. OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

Sure, Shakespeare scribbled it first—but Carroll’s Queen of Hearts certainly popularized the imperative.

5. I'M LATE, I'M LATE, FOR A VERY IMPORTANT DATE

We feel you, White Rabbit. We have as much FOMO as you do.

6. WHAT A STRANGE WORLD WE LIVE IN

Alice uttered it to the Queen of Hearts. And now we say it to each other … whenever we watch a Bravo marathon.

7. CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER

English comp students rejoice! You can say this in a paper—or when you grow inexplicably and rapidly taller.

8. WONDERLAND

The word existed prior to Carroll. But, as Vega points out, “Now it means something very specific. It’s Alice’s wonderland—that’s what we think of when we think of the origin of that word.” Sorry, Taylor Swift.

9. TWEEDLEDEE AND TWEEDLEDUM

From the 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, this one’s particularly useful for playground battles, presidential campaigns, and Halloween.

10. JABBERWOCKY

Prior to its 1871 print debut, jabberwocky was a nonsense word that served as the nonsense title of a nonsense poem in Through the Looking-Glass. Now, it’s a real entry in the real dictionary that really means “meaningless speech.” What a strange world we live in, indeed.

All images courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

The Scottish Play: Why Actors Won’t Call Macbeth by Its Title

Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

If you see someone burst from the doors of a theater, spin around three times, spit over their left shoulder, and shout out a Shakespearean phrase or curse word, it’s likely they just uttered “Macbeth” inside the building and are trying to keep a very famous curse at bay.

As the story goes, saying “Macbeth” in a theater when you’re not rehearsing or performing the play can cause disaster to befall the production. Instead, actors commonly refer to it as “the Bard’s play” or “the Scottish play.”

According to History.com, the curse of Macbeth originated after a string of freak accidents occurred during early performances of Shakespeare’s 1606 play. In the very first show, the actor portraying Lady Macbeth unexpectedly died, and Shakespeare himself had to take over the role. In a later one, an actor stabbed King Duncan with an actual dagger rather than a prop knife, killing him on stage.

Macbeth has continued to cause calamity after calamity throughout its four centuries of existence. Harold Norman died from stab wounds sustained during a fight scene while playing Macbeth in 1947, and there have been several high-profile audience riots at various performances, too—the worst was at New York’s Astor Place Opera House in 1849, when fans of British actor William Charles Macready clashed with those of American actor Edwin Forrest. Twenty-two people died, and more than 100 others were injured.

Since Macbeth has been around for so long and performed so often, it’s not exactly surprising its history contains some tragic moments. But many believe these accidents are the result of a curse actual witches cast on the play when Shakespeare first debuted it.

As the Royal Shakespeare Company explains, Shakespeare really did his research when creating the three witches in Macbeth: “Fillet of a fenny snake,” “eye of newt and toe of frog,” and other lines from the “Song of the Witches” were supposedly taken from “real” witches’ spells from the time. According to legend, a coven of witches decided to punish him for using their magic by cursing his play.

For skeptics, Christopher Eccleston—who played Macbeth in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2018—offers a slightly more believable theory about the origin of the curse. In the interview below, he explains how theater companies that were struggling financially would stage Macbeth, a crowd favorite, to guarantee ticket sales. Therefore, saying “Macbeth” in a theater was an admission that things weren’t going well for your company.

[h/t History.com]

The Library of Congress Needs Help Transcribing Walt Whitman’s Poems and Letters

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

From O Captain! My Captain! to Song of Myself, Walt Whitman produced some of literature's most memorable poems. But for every work published in his lifetime, the writer left behind many manuscripts that weren't shared with the world. Now, the Library of Congress is asking for the public's help in reviewing thousands of Whitman's handwritten documents, including letters, poems, and other writings.

May 31, 2019, marked the 200th anniversary of Whitman's birth, and the LOC is honoring the occasion by making a push to transcribe its Walt Whitman archives. The institution is home to the world's largest Whitman manuscript collection, which includes original copies of his poems as well as more personal works. In letters written in 1840 and 1841, Whitman expressed his support for presidential candidate Martin Van Buren and his disdain for small-town life in Woodbury, New York. On one printed copy of O Captain! My Captain!, the poet has scribbled his edits by hand.

The collection the LOC wants to transcribe originally consisted of close to 4000 documents. More than half of those have been completed so far, and roughly 1860 transcriptions still need to be reviewed. Anyone can read the documents that need approval and officially add them to the Whitman archive.

The Library of Congress depends on the public for many of its transcription projects. In 2018, it launched a campaign to transcribe its Lincoln collection, and it crowdsourced a project transcribing thousands of suffragist documents in 2019.

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