Word of the Day: Boojum

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, boojum, a word coined by Lewis Carroll in his poem The Hunting of the Snark. The poem was originally supposed to be part of a book, entitled Sylvie and Bruno (1889 and 1893), but he ended up publishing it by itself (and later with another work, “An Easter Greeting to Every Child Who Loves Alice”). It was illustrated by Henry Holliday, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite School of Painting. Holliday did one illustration that was rejected by Carroll, and that was on the Boojum.

A boojum is “An object of pursuit which proves to be illusory or impossible to attain, or which brings negative consequences when attained. Also more generally: any imaginary malevolent creature or monster,” according to the OED. In The Hunting of the Snark, the Boojum is an especially dangerous kind snark. The poem ends,

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found

   Not a button, or feather, or mark,

By which they could tell that they stood on the ground

   Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

   In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away—

   For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

On the other hand, a boojum can also be this: “In the physics of superfluidity, a boojum is a geometric pattern on the surface of one of the phases of superfluid helium-3, whose motion can result in the decay of a supercurrent. A boojum can result from a monopole singularity in the bulk of the liquid being drawn to, and then “pinned” on a surface. Although superfluid helium-3 only exists within a few thousandths of a degree of absolute zero, boojums have also been observed forming in various liquid crystals, which exist at a far broader range of temperatures.” Frankly, the other boojum makes more sense to me than this one.

In addition, there is a boojum tree: “Fouquieria columnaris, the Boojum tree or cirio is a tree in the ocotillo family, whose other members include the ocotillos. It is nearly endemic to the Baja California Peninsula, with only a small population in the Sierra Bacha of Sonora, Mexico. The plant’s English name, Boojum, was given by Godfrey Sykes of the Desert Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona and is taken from Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark.’”

Finally, there is a pub in Waynesville, NC, called the Boojum Taproom: “Boojum features seasonal pub faire including tasty burgers, sandwiches, shareables and daily specials that pair perfectly with our beer. Choose from 16 taps of fresh, delicious & ever rotating Boojum Beer plus wine & craft cocktails. Cozy up inside or take in the mountain air on our back deck.” I have a brother who lives near Waynesville, NC, so I could well visit the Boojum Taproom, though I would likely pass on Boojum Beer.

Would it be worth hunting the snark knowing that the snark could turn out to be a boojum? I don’t know. Would it be worth dealing with temperatures near absolute zero to experience the boojum on the surface of superfluid helium-3? Absolutely not. If I were in Baja, would I enjoy seeing a boojum tree. Sure. Why not? And since I really enjoy visiting pubs, I know that I would be happy to visit the Boojum Taproom in Waynesville, NC. And frankly, I think the latter two boojums would be neither impossible to attain nor negative in the consequences of my finding them.

The image is the cover of the first edition of The Hunting of the Snark.