Humpty Dumpty on the meaning of words

Relevant to a discussion at Stephanie’s about whether to out a persistent and rather unsubtle troll so their meatspace acquaintances have a better understanding of what kind of viciousness he gets up to online, allowing them to protect themselves. It has, as most conversations do, meandered into an area related to the meanings of certain words. I was reminded of a passage in Through The Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll.

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ cried Humpty Dumpty. ‘How many days are there in a year?’

‘Three hundred and sixty-five,’ said Alice.

‘And how many birthdays have you?’


‘And if you take one from three hundred and sixty-five, what remains?’

‘Three hundred and sixty-four, of course.’

Humpty Dumpty looked doubtful. ‘I’d rather see that done on paper,’ he said.

Alice couldn’t help smiling as she took out her memorandum-book, and worked the sum for him:



Humpty Dumpty took the book, and looked at it carefully. ‘That seems to be done right—’ he began.

‘You’re holding it upside down!’ Alice interrupted.

‘To be sure I was!’ Humpty Dumpty said gaily, as she turned it round for him. ‘I thought it looked a little queer. As I was saying, that SEEMS to be done right—though I haven’t time to look it over thoroughly just now—and that shows that 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.’

In the thread, Stephanie mused:

I do wish people would learn what the word “dogma” means. “Skeptic,” “freethought,” and “censorship” too, for that matter.

I replied:

But words mean what you want them to mean, and these guys want “dogma” to mean “stuff I don’t agree with”, “skeptic” to mean “people who believe nothing without signed affidavits and video evidence”, “freethought” to mean “free-for-all anarchy”, and “censorship” to mean “you didn’t let me poop on your rug.”

Keep on keepin’ on, you kooky, crazy anti-feminists and Rebecca Watson haters. Don’t let everyone else’s dictionary definitions of words get you down. Keep redefining things because that’s the only way you’ll ever win this, or any other argument.

Humpty Dumpty on the meaning of words

3 thoughts on “Humpty Dumpty on the meaning of words

  1. 1

    It’s a long time since I read Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice (what other one would anyone read), but my recollection is that Humpty Dumpty was in Wonderland, not through the looking glass.

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