Nonsense Words in 1726 Novel 'Gulliver's Travels' Decoded

Professor Irving Rothman\'s explanation offers a new solution to the 289-year-old puzzle that has eluded a proper explanation.

Published: 12th August 2015 04:44 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th August 2015 05:22 PM   |  A+A-


The promotional poster of 'Gulliver's Travels'.


NEW YORK: Certain "nonsense" words that Jonathan Swift introduced in his 1726 novel "Gulliver's Travels” are actually willful distortions of Hebrew, says a linguist from the University of Houston.

Professor Irving Rothman's explanation offers a new solution to the 289-year-old puzzle that has eluded a proper explanation.

In his 1980 annotated version of the book, author Isaac Asimov wrote that "making sense out of the words and phrases introduced by Swift ... is a waste of time. ... I suspect that Swift simply made up nonsense for the purpose."

But Rothman proposes that the words such as 'Hnea Yahoo' or 'Hekinah Degul' that were used in the novel were variations of Hebrew.

Swift studied Hebrew at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, Rothman pointed out in his article published in Swift Studies, an annual review of scholarship on the work of novelist Jonathan Swift.

"Gulliver's Travels," Swift's best-known work, is a satire on human nature, politics and the traveler's tales popular at the time. It remains a staple of high school and college literature classes.

Written in the voice of traveler Lemuel Gulliver, the novel reports the unlucky Gulliver's various adventures, including his capture on the shores of the island nation of Lilliput by a race of people just six inches tall.

Immediately upon his capture, Gulliver encounters a puzzling use of language.

"When Gulliver awakens to discover himself tethered to the ground, he finds himself face to face with a six-inch Lilliputian who utters the words 'Hekinah Degul,' " Rothman wrote.

"The words are repeated when the Lilliputians observe Gulliver drinking two hogsheads of a liquour resembling Burgundy. When he swallows ... the people shout 'Borach Mivola.' "

Rothman said the phrase Borach Mivola, shouted as Gulliver drinks the liquor, can be interpreted with Borach as a variant of the Hebrew Boruch, or blessed. 

Mivola, if spelled in the Hebrew manner mivolim, means "complete defeat," he said.

"Swift's application of the word Mivolam to Gulliver's drinking of two hogsheads of liquor would have Swift show Gulliver drunk, boisterous among the Lilliputians, and oblivious of his misery," Rothman noted. 

"Thus Swift engaged in a witty synecdoche or a willful distortion in his satirical use of the Hebrew word," he pointed out.

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