Tag Archives: Lewis Carroll

Dormouse / Dolbear

A couple of days ago it suddenly occurred to me — after how many years of reading Lewis Carroll? — why the Dormouse in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is always falling asleep. It’s a pun, reading dor-mouse as dorm-ouse. Carroll wrote for a generation of children who still studied Latin and would know that a “dormous” creature would be a sleepy one.

Out of curiosity, I looked up dormouse in an etymological dictionary to find out what the dor- part meant — and I found that Carroll’s “dormous” interpretation was not actually a pun but was literally correct. Although there is some uncertainty about the etymology of dormouse, the most likely theory is that it derives from French dormeuse (“sleeper,” feminine), and that the final syllable was later, erroneously, reinterpreted as “mouse.” The dormouse hibernates, hence the name. The association in English between dormice and sleeping is not original to Carroll, but appears in Shakespeare: “to awake your dormouse valour” (Twelfth Night).

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Just minutes after checking that etymology, I checked a few blogs I read, including Bruce Charlton’s Tolkien blog. This was the latest post:

What is the meaning (fanciful etymology) of Dolbear’s name?

I guess ‘bear’ means bear, because Dolbear is stereotypically bear like^ – while ‘Dol’ means pain, and is the medical ‘unit’ for pain – so maybe this is a pun on the fact that the real-life model for Dolbear – Havard – contributed an appendix to CS lewis’s book ‘The Problem of Pain’.

This Dolbear may mean ‘Pain (expert)-bear’.

^Tendency to fall asleep, gruffness, hairiness.

(Dolbear is a character in Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers, the work with which Bruce’s blog is primarily concerned.)

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I find this to be quite a remarkable coincidence. Bruce, too, is exploring the “fanciful etymology” of the name of a fictional character which ends in an ordinary English animal name (mouse, bear) and begins with a partial Latin root (dor suggests dormiredoldolor). Both names begin with Do-. To top it all off, Bruce even mentions a “tendency to fall asleep.”

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