Lesson #197: Alice’s Adventures With Homographs and Homophones (Words That Are Spelled Or Sound The Same)

📗 “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

One of the most famous children’s books in the word is certainly Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which has been translated into at least 174 since it was first published over 150 years ago. ✨

If you have ever tried to read it in its original English, you will have noticed that it includes many words that are confusingly similar (or even a bit obscure) on first reading.

💡 This is because Lewis Carroll loved to use homonyms – that is, words that are spelled the same or sound the same.

👉 In a story full of communication issues, Carroll’s homonyms invert or turn literal logic upside-down in an entertaining way! But of course, homonyms are used in other ways as well – in riddles, in poetry, and almost always in good speeches.

I have found 8 examples of homonyms in Carroll’s book that we can look at together here.


We have a word for words are spelled the same but have different meanings: homographs. Examples of homographs include bear, bow, close, lean, quail, etc.

Words that sound similar even though they have different spelling are called homophones. Examples of homophones in English include I/eye, hair/hare, knew/new, plain/plane, tail/tale, real/reel, etc.


Advanced English learners especially will be able to appreciate Carroll’s homonyms, which are subtle and funny.

👉 I will quote some below, and see if you can first find the homographs or homophones out for yourself (I will identify them for you later on in the lesson):



📗 “Mine is a long and a sad tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.

“It is a long tail, certainly,” said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; “but why do you call it sad?”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Here ‘tale’ and ‘tail’ are used in a wordplay of similar sounds (homophones), even though their meaning is very different!



📗 “And so these three little sisters— they were learning to draw, you know—”

“What did they draw?” said Alice, quite forgetting her promise.

“Treacle,” said the Dormouse, without considering at all this time. …

“… Where did they draw the treacle from?”

“You can draw water out of a water-well,” said the Hatter; “so I should think you could draw treacle out of a treacle-well— eh, stupid?”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Here the wordplay is on ‘draw’, which is a homograph as the same spelled word has two different meanings.

✍️ ‘draw’ can mean:

  1. to illustrate, to sketch, to use a pencil or pen to make an artistic picture of something
  2. to extract, take or pull something out of something else, like drawing water from a well. The word ‘withdraw’ is related to it: we often speak of ‘withdrawing a book from the library’ when we take or borrow a book from the library.



📗 “But they were in the well,” Alice said to the Dormouse, not choosing to notice this last remark.

“Of course they were,” said the Dormouse; “— well in.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Can you see Carroll’s clever wordplay on the sounds of ‘in the well’ and ‘well in’? I think this is a good example of a homophone, even though they usually consist of only one word.

‘Well in’ simply means to be deep into something. You might say, ‘the little girl was well in the game when her mother called her to go home’ – this means that the little girl was perhaps half-way through the game, or even deeply involved in the game’s progress, when she was interrupted and told she had to go home.

So when the Dormouse answers Alice, he is playfully saying that ‘they’ (the sisters in his story) were ‘… in the well … well in …’.



📗 “Of course it is,” said the Duchess, who seemed ready to agree to everything that Alice said; “there’s a large mustard-mine near here. And the moral of that is—‘ The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.’”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Again, here is another homograph: ‘mine’.

✍️ A ‘mine’ has two meanings:

  1. (noun) a deep hole or cavern underground that is used for collecting coal, gold, or some other mineral.
  2. (personal pronoun) belonging to me, of my own



📗 “And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.

“Ten hours the first day,” said the Mock Turtle: “nine the next, and so on.”

“What a curious plan!” exclaimed Alice.

“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Of course the wordplay here is on ‘lesson’ and ‘lessen’, two homophones that sound almost exactly the same!



📗 “Boots and shoes under the sea,” the Gryphon went on in a deep voice, “are done with a whiting. Now you know.”

“And what are they made of?” Alice asked in a tone of great curiosity.

“Soles and eels, of course,” the Gryphon replied rather impatiently: “any shrimp could have told you that.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Here the homophones might be a bit trickier to find. They are ‘soles and eels’, which sound like ‘soles and heels’.

✍️ The way it is spelled – ‘soles and eels’ – indicates a type of fish (sole) and a kind of sea creature that is like a snake but not dangerous (eel).

The way it is meant to sound – ‘soles and heels’ – reminds us that the Gryphon and Alice had been speaking about ‘boots and shoes under the sea’. ✍️ ‘Soles’ in this case means the bottom flat surface of your shoe, the part that makes contact with the ground when you walk. ‘Heels’ are the thicker section on a shoe sole directly under your heel; in some women’s shoes, the heels can be thicker and narrower (e.g. ‘high heels’).



📗 “They were obliged to have him with them,” the Mock Turtle said: “no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.”

“Wouldn’t it really?” said Alice in a tone of great surprise.

“Of course not,” said the Mock Turtle: “why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say ‘With what porpoise?’”

“Don’t you mean ‘purpose’?” said Alice.

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In the background to this conversation in the story, the Mock Turtle has been describing a dance (quadrille) among sea creatures where each has a partner. The fish are said to partner with porpoises (sea mammals that look a bit like dolphins).

It is in that context that the Mock Turtle’s question, ‘with what porpoise?’, makes literal sense: put differently, has the fish decided with what porpoise he is going to dance?

But of course in real life we often ask the question, ‘with what purpose?’, in other words, ‘why?’ Why are you doing that, why are you travelling there, what is your purpose in doing that or travelling somewhere?

Because ‘purpose’ and ‘porpoise’ sound similar, although clearly written differently, they are homophones.



📗 “I’m a poor man, your Majesty,” the Hatter began, in a trembling voice, “— and I hadn’t begun my tea— not above a week or so— and what with the bread-and-butter getting so thin— and the twinkling of the tea—”

“The twinkling of the what?” said the King.

“It began with the tea,” the Hatter replied.

“Of course twinkling begins with a T!” said the King sharply. “Do you take me for a dunce? Go on!”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Again, here is another example of a homophone: ‘tea’ and ‘T’.

✍️ I also think that Carroll was doing wordplay with ‘twinkling’ (normally found in a phrase, ‘in the twinkling of an eye’, meaning in a very short time) and ‘dwindling’ (meaning the reduction of some resource, in this case the dwindling of his stock of tea). This is my guess, but you are welcome to consider it further and find your own interpretation of it!

This brings us to the end of our Lesson, and a short Lesson it has been considering how many homonyms Lewis Carroll used throughout his book!

It is easy to understand and can be read complete in about two hours, so if you are looking for a classic to get started with, Alice in Wonderland might just be for you. 😊

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)