Dot Wordsworth

Curiouser and curiouser: what does it mean to go ‘down the rabbit hole’?

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Radio 4 has just run a series of programmes called Marianna in Conspiracyland made by its disinformation correspondent Marianna Spring. Prefatory remarks for one episode asked: ‘Do you know someone who’s fallen down the rabbit hole?’ I think this phrase has changed its connotations recently. The reference to Alice in Wonderland is evident. The podcast reinforced it by quoting a phrase from the book, ‘curiouser and curiouser’. In Wonderland, Alice had mixed feelings: ‘I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole – and yet – and yet – it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!’ The OED, finding a first usage for it from 1938, defines a figurative rabbit hole as a ‘passage into a strange, surreal, or nonsensical situation or environment’. One illustrative quotation it gives from a newspaper in 1997 says: ‘Down the rabbit hole again, and into the surreal world of City politics.’

This sense is supported by that quite annoying but culturally influential film The Matrix (1999). In it, the character Morpheus is ready to expose the Potemkin nature of all visible things: ‘You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’ But this connotation of an alternative world has been weakened by popular use of down the rabbit hole as shorthand for the phenomenon of exploring an interesting lead so one hardly notices how time has flown. Someone in the Sunday Times said recently that he ‘once spent a week down a K-pop rabbit hole’. This relatively benign meaning is reflected in the name of a podcast called The Rabbit Hole Detectives, with the Revd Richard Coles, Dr Cat Jarman and Charles, Earl Spencer, who ‘chase the provenance of historical objects both real and metaphorical’. Examples are a cheese designed to host maggots or scapulimancy – divining the future from charred shoulder blades.

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