Sunday 16 May 2010

All mimsy were the polka-dots

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".
A polka-dot Aga

Dogberry is watching the cricket

* This term appears to refer to someone who, like our new Deputy Prime Minister, went to Westminster School. It sounds improbable, but no more so than Old Wok.

** “Mimsy”, first applied to “borogoves”, was a portmanteau word invented by Lewis Carroll by combining “miserable” and “flimsy”.


  1. Thank you for this, Mrs M. I did not know it was a portmanteau word and I liked your list of other MI words.

    My favourite is 'miffed'. It is without doubt the very best word to use should one have a yen to get arrested. As in (to a very cross policeman) "I can see you're getting a bit miffed..."

    It never fails.

  2. The Antipodean17 May 2010 at 05:08

    Dogberry would be happy with the cricket, I suspect.

    On malapropisms and portmanteaus (portmaneteux?) -

  3. Moptop - I have added a short list of other Jabberwocky portmanteau words which have survived into the present day, either with the original or a slightly altered meaning.

  4. And thank you for the "malamanteau" link, Antipodean! That's wonderful.

  5. I watched the cricket with divine impartiality and the heap of Australians sitting at the next table, engorged with woe, had nothing whatsoever to do with my giggling.

    It may be coincidence, but mimsy also rhymes with whimsy.

  6. According to the OED, mimsy meaning "prim; careful; affected; feeble, weak, lightweight" is a completely different word from Carroll's mimsy, with a different etymology.

  7. To continue: it's apparently from "mim" meaning "Reserved or restrained in manner or behaviour, esp. in a contrived or priggish way" which dates from well before Jabberwocky.

  8. Yes, I noticed this - but the first citation for the word in this second sense is not until thirty years after Carroll first used it in 1855, which is why I think my edition at least is a bit cautious on the etmyology - saying that it "apparently" derives from the older adjective "mim" but may also be influenced by Carroll.

  9. but you are right, the present day meaning is much closer to "mim" (which was being used as early as the sixteenth century to mean "reserved, restrained...contrived or priggish...affectedly modest, demure") than to Carroll's "miserable and flimsy".