Samuel Johnson, who published the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language in 1755, imbued many of his entries with dry wit. His entry for oats, for example, defines it is “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Much different is the Oxford English Dictionary, which (to my knowledge) cracks a smile only once in its 22,000 pages. In the entry for jubjub, a word that first appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass in 1871, that sober tome remarks that the jubjub is “an imaginary bird of a ferocious, desperate and occasionally charitable nature, noted for its excellence when cooked.” Etymologists have long wondered how Carroll devised this word. Some have suggested that he modified the word jug-jug, which has been used to represent the call of the nightingale since the early sixteenth century. Others have proposed that jubjub was inspired by jujube, the name of a tree that botanists call zizyphus, and which produces an edible berry also known as a jujube. In the mid nineteenth century, the name of that berry was borrowed and bestowed on a soft, fruitflavoured candy.


Comments are closed.