Thursday, March 21, 2013

The name “Lewis Carroll"

Frontispiece of Through the Looking-Glass

Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. He was also a professional mathematician at Christ Church College at Oxford. Dodgson loved logic puzzles and word games, a love that is evident to anyone who has read the Alice books. So it's fitting that the very name "Lewis Carroll" is a form of wordplay—a kind which would have made sense to any mid-Victorian gentleman of Dodgson's day, but which now is a little arcane, because it runs through Latin.

Dodgson's full name was "Charles Lutwidge Dodgson." Taking just the two given names, he translated them into their Latin equivalents:

Carolus is the standard late-Latin for the name "Charles," which was originally French—as seen in the name of the emperor Charlemagne, who was, in Latin, styled Carolus Magnus ("Charles the Great"). Its Germanic equivalent became Carl/Karl, so that when Swedish botanist Carl von Linné published (in Latin) his work proposing a Latin taxonomic system for classifying all lifeforms (the Systema Naturae), he naturally translated his own name into Carolus Linnaeus—which is why we still call his taxonomic system Linnaean classification.

Linnaean classification at work.
"Lutwidge" is a Saxon cognate of the more familiar Germanic name Ludwig, whose Latinized form was Ludovicus. That name, in early French, was corrupted into the form Louis—hence its loan into English, and alternate spelling as "Lewis." (The name "Ludwig" should bring up thoughts of Beethoven, naturally: interestingly, in 18th century Europe, the practice of "translating" names into their cognate equivalents was more common, so that some published editions of the early Beethoven works attribute them to "Louis van Beethoven" or even "Louis de Beethoven.")

Carolus Ludovicus, flipped around, became Ludovicus Carolus, and, with a bit of wordplay, finally Louis Carol = Lewis Carroll. Alice's family would have appreciated the game: the father of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the Alice of the books, was an eminent Victorian classicist by the name of Henry Liddell. The elder Liddell was dean of Christ Church (Carroll's college), and assisted in compiling what is still the standard reference dictionary of the Greek language, the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon. (The dictionary comes in three sizes—short, intermediate, and unabridged—which classicists nickname the Little Liddell, the Middle Liddell, and the Great Scott.)


  1. Well put, very educating. Did the exclamatory phrase "Great Scott!" stem from the dictionary slang?

    1. Hmm... Well, the OED lists the first occurrence of "Great Scott!" as:

      1885 F. Anstey, "Tinted Venus" 60: "Great Scott! I must be bad!"

      This is well after the first edition of the Liddell-Scott lexicon in 1843, so it's entirely possible that it comes from the dictionary joke. But the OED compares to similar exclamations (Great Caesar!, Great Scott!, Great Sun!, Great Jehoshaphat!) which do not seem all that related—those in turn, however, they only cite back to 1870-ish. So assuming these only came into standard usage circa, say, 1860, it seems unlikely the name existed from the outset of the dictionary's life. It seems more likely to me that it's a back-formation (i.e., the idiom sprang into life, and then someone made a joke about it) than vice-versa. But I have no evidence for this claim!

    2. By the way, should anyone wish to read F. Antsey's "Tinted Venus," it can be found here:

      And more information about F. Antsey: