10 Everyday Phrases Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Made Popular
BY Kelly Marages
October 2, 2017
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.
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.
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
From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.
Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."
The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.
Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.
This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.
Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.
In 1900, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book that has never been out of print and that has been produced as movies, theatrical plays and musicals, and led to further cultural phenomena like The Wiz and Wicked. In honor of his 162nd birthday, here are 15 facts about the actual man behind the curtain.
1. HIS HOMETOWN HOSTS AN OZ-FEST (BUT NOT THAT OZZFEST).
Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856 in Chittenango, New York, to a wealthy family and raised on an estate called Rose Lawn in Mattydale, New York, just outside Syracuse. In honor of Baum, Chittenango holds an annual festival of all things Oz called Oz-Stavaganza.
2. THE FIRST ANIMALS HE WROTE ABOUT WERE CHICKENS.
Baum was a sickly child and his father indulged his hobbies, including buying him a small printing press that he used to produce a newspaper. Another hobby was raising fancy chickens called Hamburgs. At 23, he started his own chicken trade journal, which he soon sold to a rival. He stayed on as a column writer, and contributed a long, serialized article on breeding and rearing Hamburgs. Later, when Baum was 30, the magazine (supposedly without Baum's knowledge) published that original article in full, making it Baum's first published book.
3. DOROTHY'S "YELLOW BRICK ROAD" MIGHT HAVE BEEN BASED ON A CHILDHOOD MEMORY.
When he was 12, Baum was sent to the Peekskill Military Academy in Peekskill, New York, for two years, where he was absolutely miserable. But it is also where he may have first seen a yellow brick road—at that time many of the streets of Peekskill were paved with yellow Dutch bricks. And for a young teen who just wanted to go home, the memory might have provided future inspiration. An alternative hypothesis is that when he was living in Syracuse, a plank road was installed made out of a yellow colored wood.
4. BAUM HAD A BRIEF CAREER AS AN ACTOR.
Baum’s first ambition as a young man was to be an actor and playwright. He wrote several plays, including The Maid of Arran, which was successfully produced and in which he acted. The only time that Baum was known to have been in Kansas was when he toured in this play in 1882. However, his love of and involvement with the theater lasted throughout his life.
5. BAUM WAS A FEMINIST, AS WERE HIS WIFE AND IN-LAWS.
In 1882, Baum married Maud Gage, daughter of the noted feminist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. He had a warm relationship with his mother-in-law, who, along with his new wife, helped him become a lifelong suffragist and feminist. According to biographer Katharine M. Rogers, Baum was "a secure man who did not worry about asserting his masculine authority." In fact, most of his books had girls as the heroes. Matilda Gage was the person who convinced Baum to write for children, having listened to him tell his children the stories that he created.
6. MOST OF HIS CAREER PATHS, INCLUDING RUNNING A NEWSPAPER, FAILED.
After several financial reverses—Baum failed as an actor, as a salesman, and in other careers—he moved his family in 1888 to Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, in what is now South Dakota. He opened a store (which failed) and a newspaper (which failed, too). In his newspaper, he strongly supported women’s suffrage, but he is also thought to have written two racisteditorials calling for extermination of Native Americans. (In 2006, two of Baum’s descendants apologized to the Sioux Nation for the editorials.) In 1891, Baum lost the newspaper and he and his family moved to Chicago.
7. HE STARTED WRITING CHILDREN'S BOOKS IN HIS FORTIES.
In 1897, at the age of 41, Baum published his first book for children, Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish (his first big commission; Parrish went on to become a top illustrator for books and magazines). It was a success. Baum followed it up in 1899 withFather Goose: His Book, which also sold very well. He then wrote two alphabet books, and publishers began to consider him an important children’s author.
8. THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ IS CONSIDERED THE FIRST TRUE AMERICAN FAIRYTALE.
In 1900, Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with illustrations by William Wallace Denslow. It was an instant hit. Although there have been many theories on how the book is an allusion to the politics of the United States in the late 1800s, there is no conclusive proof that Baum intended any such connections. But Baum did create the Land of Oz as a distinctly American utopia, making it the first truly American fairytale.
9. THE LAND OF OZ WAS NAMED FOR A FILING CABINET.
Baum’s original title for the book was “The Emerald City,” but publishers had a superstition that a jewel in a book title was bad luck and asked Baum to change it. Baum got the name for his fairy country off a drawer on a file cabinet that was marked “O-Z.” He named his plucky heroine Dorothy Gale after an infant niece named Dorothy Louise Gage who died while he was writing the book.
10. WICKED WAS NOT THE FIRST OZ ADAPTATION ON BROADWAY.
In 1902, Baum collaborated on a stage version called The Wizard of Oz that ran on Broadway for two years and toured until 1911. The plot was decidedly different from the book, with Toto being replaced by a cow and more people from Kansas traveling to Oz along with Dorothy. Because of the success of the play and subsequent Oscar-winning movie, the book has often been published without “wonderful” in the title.
Baum continued writing Oz books—14 in total—until the end of his life, with a new book usually coming out in time for Christmas. In his later years, he answered children’s letters on letterhead that proclaimed him as the "Royal Historian of Oz." He often used suggestions from children when creating the Oz books. The series was continued after his death by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote an additional 19 Oz books, and several other authors who added seven more.
12. BAUM WROTE UNDER A VARIETY OF PSEUDONYMS.
In addition to the Oz series, Baum wrote other books for children and teenagers, including romances and science fiction, under an assortment of pen names. Under the name Edith Van Dyne, he wrote a successful series of books called Aunt Jane’s Nieces that were as popular as the Oz books. Other pseudonyms included Laura Bancroft, Floyd Akers, Schuyler Staunton, and Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald.
13. BAUM LOST THE RIGHTS TO HIS MOST FAMOUS BOOK BECAUSE OF FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES.
Baum created a stage show in 1908 called “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays” that combined a lecture by him with live actors, a movie, and projected slides. Critics and audiences loved it, but it cost more to produce than it brought in. Baum declared bankruptcy, which caused him to lose his royalty rights to his earlier books, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
14. BAUM WROTE AND DIRECTED A NUMBER OF OZ FILMS HIMSELF.
In 1914, Baum started a film company. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company lasted only for a few years, but it produced several Oz-related movies, including His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. For once, Baum didn’t lose any money on this business venture.
15. HIS FINAL WORDS WERE IN REFERENCE TO OZ.
Baum’s health began to fail in 1917, and he died two years later after suffering a stroke. Just before he passed, he had some interesting last words for his wife. In his books, the land of Oz is cut off from the rest of the world by impassable wastelands, including a desert called the Shifting Sands. As Baum lay dying, he supposedly referenced the work that made his legacy: “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.”