Disclaimer: I’m actually the only editor whose thoughts are being discussed in the following discourse.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” When I read that in Stan Carey’s article on MacMillan Dictionary questioning the unfounded rules we as writers and editors impose on ourselves and others within our power, I told him he’d made the argument I’d been searching for to back this post. I’d like to push Stan’s question a little farther into declaration territory.

Here’s the refrain from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

About this verse, Carroll says in the preface to The Hunting of the Snark:

As this poem is to some extent connected with the lay of the Jabberwock,
let me take this opportunity of answering a question that has often been
asked me, how to pronounce “slithy toves.”  The “i” in “slithy” is long,
as in “writhe”; and “toves” is pronounced so as to rhyme with “groves.”
Again, the first “o” in “borogoves” is pronounced like the “o” in
“borrow.”  I have heard people try to give it the sound of the “o” in
“worry”.  Such is Human Perversity.

I was grateful for Carroll’s guidance, but the real questions begged here are, “What in the world is a slithy tove? Why must a borogove be pronunced that way?” But Carroll leaves them maddeningly unanswered. Reading his work is much like reading a Mad Lib: every sentence is in its proper construction, but none is quite “right.”

Though I doubt any of us imagine we’re going to that extreme, I see instances of it every day. One major example is the word “friend.” It’s an old noun, passed down over time to mean many warm and fuzzy kinds of people, and now it’s a verb that means “get off my back, I’ve done it!” too.

As an editor who’s surrounded by the safe and sane classics of writing guidance, I was much taken aback at first. How could a soulless, money-grubbing business get millions of people to help it chase and wrestle a word down and hold it there while attaching a new meaning–a new place in the lexicon–to its belt? Surely this was heresy in any court of usage.

I was admittedly young and therefore complicit in the pressing of the colon, semicolon, and right parenthesis into the slave-labor production of trillions of smileys. Although they’re commonplace now and I guess few people my age knew what else to use colons and semicolons for, it was a quieter revolution than most, but still.

But what rules were broken in the example above? What crime was committed? On a purely word-by-word basis–with no analysis of the state of our world’s communication, its level of literacy, or the conspiracy of the ignorant to send us all to the crazy house–it’s perfectly permissible to create new furrows in the path of language. It’s permissible whether I like where it leads or not. Qualifiers and restrictions will abound and apply.

Yet I must confess I had a feeling very much akin to jealousy when I saw hashtags on Twitter for the first time. It couldn’t really have been jealousy because I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve used them among my thousands of tweets. But it was close. As a user of the language as well as its guardian–as a person who observes much more language than I use myself–it reminded me that language is a beast we can ride but not control, no matter how desperately we want and try to. It was the wildness of it I envied even as I thought, our beast is alive and healthy, hobgoblins and all. And that made me smile.

I’ll bet that’s what Carroll’s editors did, too, by the end of Jabberwocky. Although, knowing editors, he’d never get away with a hashtag.

Photo credit: Random House Audio, courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.

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