Of heffalumps and hunny: the language of Winnie-the-Pooh
November 6, 2012 marks 88 years since the world was first introduced to one of the most famous characters in children’s literature, Winnie-the-Pooh. When We Were Very Young, A. A. Milne’s first collection of children’s poems was published on this day in 1924, and was written for his three-year-old son, Christopher Robin.
When We Were Very Young became a bestseller, but it wasn’t until the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926, and The House at Pooh Corner in 1928, that Mr Edward Bear, as Pooh was first called, rose to fame. Over the years, Milne’s books have been translated into many languages, including Latin (Winnie ille Pu is the only book in Latin to have made the New York Times Best Seller List), and since publication, they have never been out of print.
The popularity of the Winnie-the-Pooh series is down to the characters, and the way in which Milne depicts them. The language he uses gives each character its own personality, its own voice, and its own set of unique traits, which have, I believe, ensured the lasting legacy of Winnie-the-Pooh.
A Bear of Very Little Brain
As Christopher Robin’s favourite toy, Winnie-the-Pooh is the protagonist of the series, and the subject of many of Milne’s poems. He is charmingly dim-witted, and refers to himself as ‘a Bear of Very Little Brain’, and if the situation allows, ‘a Bear of No Brain at All’. That said, he is aware that the other characters are more intelligent, and often thinks of them in terms of what they know and the words they use.
An interesting example is Owl, the elder of the forest, who is often consulted by Pooh in difficult situations because he is wise and ‘able to read and write and can spell his own name WOL’. He also has two signs outside his door, which Pooh finds deeply impressive, that read ‘PLES RING IF AN RNSER IS REQIRD’ and ‘PLEZ CNOKE IF AN RNSR IS NOT REQID’. When Pooh consults Owl to find out what the opposite of an introduction is, Owl tells Pooh that ‘the Opposite of an Introduction [is] a Contradiction,’ which Pooh assumes to be correct as Owl is ‘very good at long words’. In a child’s point of view, Owl is an appealing character because even a young reader could figure out that he is not as wise as he pretends to be.
Rabbit, on the other hand, has a quick wit and is never afraid to say what he is really thinking. In an exchange between Pooh and Rabbit in The House at Pooh Corner, Pooh asks, ‘Hello Rabbit, is that you?’, to which Rabbit responds, ‘Let’s pretend it isn’t. . . and see what happens.’ He also has a great feeling of self-importance, as displayed when he considers the other characters in the forest.
Christopher Robin depends on Me. He’s fond of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, and so am I, but they haven’t any Brain. Not to notice. And he respects Owl, because you can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count. And Kanga is too busy looking after Roo, and Roo is too young and Tigger is too bouncy to be any help, so there’s really nobody but Me, when you come to look at it.
But when we look at Rabbit through Pooh’s eyes, we get a very different view of him. As with Owl, Pooh thinks of Rabbit in terms of the language he uses, and how complex his vocabulary is. Pooh thinks to himself that he likes talking to Rabbit because ‘he uses short, easy words, like “What about lunch?” and “Help yourself, Pooh.”’
Piglet, Pooh’s side-kick, thinks in much the same way as Pooh. He lives in constant fear of predators coming to attack him, as he is aware of his small size, and often makes comments like ‘It’s hard to be brave when you’re only a Very Small Animal’. But Piglet is also fiercely proud of his background, and what he lacks in physical size, he feels he makes up for in other ways. An amusing example is the sign outside Piglet’s house.
Next to his house was a piece of broken board which had: “TRESPASSERS W” on it. When Christopher Robin asked the Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather’s name, and had been in the family for a long time. Christopher Robin said you couldn’t be called Trespassers W, and Piglet said yes, you could, because his grandfather was, and it was short for Trespassers Will, which was short for Trespassers William.
Despite being a self-declared Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh is quite a competent writer of ditties, or ‘hums’, as he calls them. As a writer of prose and poetry, Milne incorporates these hums into the text to add lightness to serious (by Winnie-the-Pooh standards) situations. When Pooh is walking through the snow, the following hum pops into his head:
The more it snows
The more it goes
The more it goes
And nobody knows
How cold my toes
How cold my toes
And when he loses his pot of honey, he sings the following tune:
It’s very, very funny,
‘Cos I know I had some honey;
‘Cos it had a label on,
A goloptious full-up pot too,
And I don’t know where it’s got to,
No, I don’t know where it’s gone—
Well, it’s funny.
Winnie-the-Pooh in the Oxford English Dictionary
Several of the words and character names coined by Milne in the Winnie-the-Pooh series have come into general use. The most prominent example is Eeyore. Although he is not one of the main characters, Eeyore’s gloominess is notorious in the stories. A typical exchange between Eeyore and Pooh occurs when Pooh says ‘good morning’ to Eeyore, and Eeyore responds, ‘good morning, Pooh Bear. . . If it is a good morning. . . Which I doubt.’ According to the Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion, Eeyore’s temperament is so well-known that his name can be used to describe a pessimistic person, and the adjective ‘Eeyorish’ has roots dating back to 1992 in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Other characters have also made their mark on the English language. The first citation in the OED for ‘kanga’ is attributed to Milne, and the term is used in Australia today as an abbreviation for ‘kangaroo’.
The two most-feared predators in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are heffalumps and woozles. Although ‘woozle’ never made it into the dictionary, ‘heffalump’ is in common use (there are far fewer mentions of woozles than heffalumps in the stories). Although Oxford Dictionaries define ‘heffalump’ to mean ‘a child’s word for “elephant”’, there is not explicit reference to this in the books, rather, it is only through Ernest H. Shepard’s illustrations that we know this (in The House at Pooh Corner, Piglet has a nightmare about a heffalump that Shepard depicts as an elephant).
But one of Milne’s most interesting legacies was the invention of Poohsticks. Whether or not they have read Winnie-the-Pooh, most children know the rules of Poohsticks, but fans took it to a new level in 1983 with the first World Poohsticks Championships. The competition has continued each year, and involves individuals and teams competing for the international Poohsticks titles in twelve different categories.
Milne’s second collection of poems for children, Now we are Six, was published in 1927, and written for Christopher Robin and his bear, Pooh. The last poem in the collection, ‘The End’ shows how they felt about being six:
But now I am Six,
I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.
I wonder what Pooh would say to being 88.
The opinions and other information contained in the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of OUP.
- Competitions and quizzes (26)
- Dictionaries and lexicography (114)
- English in use (303)
- Grammar and writing help (58)
- Interactive features (46)
- OED Appeals (4)
- Other languages (49)
- Varieties of English (28)
- Word origins (156)
- Word trends and new words (92)