Expressions from Alice in Wonderland

19 March, 2016

Hello! From VOA Learning English, this is Words and Their Stories.

Many expressions that we use in American English come from movies and books. Today we will explore expressions from Lewis Carroll's famous book "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." This book is better known as "Alice in Wonderland."

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was published in 1865. The story is about a young girl falling, falling, falling ... for a long time down a rabbit hole. When she finally lands, she finds herself in a strange world.

In this strange world are some of the most recognizable characters in children's literature. Many of them, and other expressions from the book, have found their way into American English.

The first character Alice meets is the White Rabbit. The White Rabbit is not your usual rabbit. First of all, he is wearing a vest and carrying a pocket watch. He also has somewhere very important to be, he says over and over.

The book
The book "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is a favorite around the world. The characters are popular costumes as well! Here, two people dress as "The Hatter" and "Alice" during the Chelsea Flower Show in London, May 2015. (AFP PHOTO)

Running past Alice, he says, "I'm late! I'm late! For a very important date! No time to say hello goodbye, I'm late, I'm late, I'm late!"

Alice chases after him, and that is where her adventures begin.

In English, chasing a white rabbit means to chase the impossible, a fantasy, a dream. In 1967, the rock band Jefferson Airplane wrote a song called "White Rabbit." The song tells of Alice's adventures and hints that drugs are involved.

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar

But don't worry. You need not take drugs. Following the white rabbit means following an unlikely clue and finding yourself in the middle of an extraordinary situation. This situation often challenges your beliefs and changes your life.

The White Rabbit is so curious, so strange, that Alice cannot help but to follow him. As she chases after him, she falls down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

Like chasing a white rabbit, these days to go down the rabbit hole does not have to mean taking drugs to change your reality.

To fall down the rabbit hole can mean to enter a confusing situation.

However, usually we use this expression to mean we got interested in something to the point of distraction. We lose all track of time. It often happens by accident and is about something not that meaningful.

With this idiom, you can add details to further describe what type of rabbit hole you fell into, as in this example:

"Where have been? You were supposed to meet me here an hour ago."

"I am so sorry! I was looking online for some advice on how to get a baby to fall asleep and I fell into a rabbit hole of parenting blogs!"

"There are tens of thousands of those. It's a wonder you made your way out!"

Going down the rabbit hole can also mean a strange state of mind.

Later in the story, Alice is the guest at a tea party – a crazy tea party! There she meets the March Hare and the Hatter. They give her riddle after riddle. And both seem truly crazy.

As with many expressions found in Carroll's books mad as a March hare appeared in other places long before the publication of his book.

Hares have long been thought to behave excitedly in March, which is their mating season. Scientifically, this may not be true. But to be mad as a March hare means that someone is completely mad, or crazy.

An actor dressed as the "Queen of Hearts" from "Alice in Wonderland" entertains children during "Walt Disney's Parade of Dreams" at Disneyland in California, 2005. (AP/Ric Francis)

The expression mad as a Hatter also means to be completely crazy. Of the two, mad as a Hatter is more common. But don't tell the March Hare. Who knows how he will react!

Now, we move on to the Cheshire Cat. Smiling like the Cheshire Cat was a common expression during Victorian times. Carroll brought this expression to life in his book with the character the Cheshire Cat. A person who is compared to the Cheshire Cat is sneaky, cunning, mischievous, unpredictable and mysterious.

Near the end of the story, Alice meets the Queen of Hearts.

The Queen of Hearts is a foul-tempered monarch. She is quick to give the death sentence for the slightest wrongdoing by yelling, "Off with their heads! Off with their heads!"

A woman who is called a Queen of Hearts is a control freak.

She is a self-appointed queen of events. And she is an aggressive woman who tries to dominate everything and everyone around her.

Using expressions from popular books can add a special flavor to your English. And when used properly, they also show you have a deeper understanding of the literature and culture of the English language. So, have fun with them!

And that's Words and Their Stories.

I'm Anna Matteo.

I found myself in Wonderland, Get back on my feet again ...

Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor. The song at the end if "Almost Alice" by Avril Lavigne and is featured in the movie "Alice in Wonderland" by Walt Disney Pictures.


Words in This Story

hintv. to say (something) or give information about (something) in an indirect way; to suggest

extraordinaryadj. very unusual; very different from what is normal or customary

sneaky adj. behaving in a secret and usually dishonest way

cunning adj. getting what is wanted by trickery

mischievous adj. showing a playful desire to cause trouble

monarch n. a leader of a kingdom or empire

dominate v. to have control of or power over someone or something