Fashion designer Bella Freud does not “do knitted polka-dots, because they can look a bit naff and mimsy”, I learned from the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine today; while yesterday’s Times suggested that Old Etonians or Wets* who failed to capitalise on their early advantages were “mimsy gits and no mistake”.
Until this year, I had never heard the word “mimsy” in relation to anything other than Lewis Carroll or Jabberwocky**. But now it seems to be everywhere, a useful term of contempt which broadsheet columnists can apply to anything from “well-mannered” books and films, through political correctness, to sorbet-coloured cardigans, the Lake District, Sophie Dahl, femininity and rugby union. In fact, it was a review of Sophie Dahl’s new television series by Simon Hoggart in The Spectator that drew my attention to the resurgence of the word to imply “a certain sort of self-conscious prettiness”.
The OED defines it as "prim; careful; affected; feeble, weak, lightweight" - quite distinct from Carroll's original sense of something between miserable and flimsy. Interestingly, it has been in use in this sense since the late nineteenth century, but it seems to have recently experienced a surge in popularity - perhaps because there has been an explosion in mimsiness, or in anti-mimsy sentiment among the grumpier sort of journalist.
But even without a dictionary definition, there is something about the word which makes it peculiarly easy to understand. Its combination of letters suggests “prIM”, “sIMpering”, “tIMid”, “MIlksop”, “MIlquetoast”, “MuMSY” and “MIddle-brow” or “MIddle-class”, and there are shades of all of these in the way the word is used – although at the most general level it might best be defined as weak and ineffectual, or pretty in a twee, girly sort of way.
Based on this reading, Cath Kidston is the epitome of mimsy (and I write as someone who earlier today squealed in no doubt mimsy delight after discovering two Cath Kidston cushions under a pile of junk in my bedroom). Expensive cupcakes with pastel-coloured icing are extremely mimsy. So, I suspect, is anything by Emma Bridgewater (all those polka dots), and Laura Ashley.
"Mimsy" is not the only word from Jabberwocky to have survived. The others include:
Chortle("O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy") - Another portmanteau word, invented by combining "chuckle" and "snort". Still used in the same sense.
Burble ("The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame/ Came whiffling through the tulgey wood/And burbled as it came") - This had been around since the fourteenth century, when it was a noun meaning bubble (later taking on the additional sense of "pimple"). But it was Lewis Carroll who introduced the current sense of "a murmorous flow of words" (n), or to emit such a noise (v), by combining "bleat", "murmur" and "warble" - although I think there is some reference to "babble" there as well.
Galumph ("He left it dead, and with its head/ He went galumphing back") - The meaning of this word has changed slightly since Carroll invented it, combining "gallop" and "triumphant" to create a word meaning "to march on exultingly with irregular bounding movements". Now the OED defines it as "to bound or move clumsily or noisily" - possibly by association with "clump" or "clumsy".
The Horologicon is a book of the strangest and most beautiful words in the English language arranged by the hour of the day when you will really need them. Words for breakfast, for commuting, for working, for dining, for drinking and for getting lost on the way home. It runs from uhtceare (sadness before dawn) to curtain lecture (a telling off given by your spouse in bed). It's out all over the world and you can buy it from these lovely people: