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Have you seen a mome rath lately?

Dear Readers, As some of you know we’ve been having some technical difficulties with the website sending out posts at the wrong time. We are working to correct the problem and apologize for any inconvenience it has caused.

Sheila, here. It’s Labor Day–happy Last Hurrah of Summer! It’s shaping up to be a busy fall.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams in the Sunday paper—you know, the strip with the idiot boss and the bored employees? I’ve been reading the Sunday comics for most of my life, ever since my father used to leave them on the table when he went to work. I could make up some twaddle about how they serve as a barometer for the nuances of contemporary middle-class life, but mostly I like to start Sundays with them.

This time in the strip Idiot Boss was trying to sound important in a meeting and throwing around terms that he was either making up or didn’t understand, and his final statement was: “And the mome raths outgrabe.”

I laughed out loud in delight. Before I go on, please stop and ask yourself if you know where that quotation comes from (and don’t check Google!). I do, but largely because of an extraordinary 4th-grade teacher in Philadelphia who stretched all of our minds. As a class we read the entire Little House series; we ground our own grain and made bread; we sewed nautical signal flags (on a treadle Singer) and created our own crow’s nest. And we learned the poem from which that quotation comes.

For the past decade or two I have watched Jeopardy regularly, and I find myself yelling at the contestants a lot. What has happened to a solid classical education? Nobody seems to know any non-English languages any more (I insist that the one high school Latin class I took has been incredibly useful in a number of ways). Too few people know most of the classics of English or American literature, beyond the name of the main characters or the setting (or if they’ve been used in a movie lately). I’ll admit I’m terrible at identifying contemporary music, or current computer terms, or even sports teams, but things I learned in my youth, in a different millennium, stick with me. I can quote about two lines of a lot of poems (“By the shores of Gitche Gumee…” Or “Whose woods these are I think I know…” or even “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day…” Actually I like the last line of that stanza better: “And leaves the world to darkness and to me.” That poem appeared on a classroom test I took in sixth grade.)

Okay, learning a lot of poetry or plays or passages from “Great Works” can be boring, and a lot of kids these days don’t get the point. What’s it good for? What young student cares about what happened a couple of hundred years ago? But for a long time, the words of authors and statesmen unified our culture in the present day, gave us a sense of shared history. Those lines or passages survived for centuries, passed on from generation to generation. We still use old idioms without knowing where they came from. Now and then you see flickers of that on Jeopardy.

If you’re still stumped, the “mome raths” come from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, in Through the Looking Glass. Yes, Carroll (or more accurately, Charles Ludwidge Dodgson) made up those words. They are funny or satirical or maybe he’s just poking fun at the pompous revered authors of his time. But they are memorable words, and I was delighted to see them when I opened the first part of the Sunday paper I read: yes, the comics.

I salute Scott Adams for keeping Lewis Carroll alive, just a little. But I have to confess that I have not one but three pairs of socks with images of the Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. They must find some audience, else the socks would not exist! Words still matter!

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