Nonsense is a communication
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

, via speech
Speech is the human faculty of speaking.It may also refer to:* Public speaking, the process of speaking to a group of people* Manner of articulation, how the body parts involved in making speech are manipulated...

, writing
Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols . It is distinguished from illustration, such as cave drawing and painting, and non-symbolic preservation of language via non-textual media, such as magnetic tape audio.Writing most likely...

, or any other symbolic system
Symbolic system
In the fields of anthropology, sociology, and psychology, symbolic system refers to a system of interconnected symbolic meanings. In particular, the field focuses on the dynamic relationships between various symbols within different task or theoretical contexts...

, that lacks any coherent meaning
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....

. Sometimes in ordinary usage, nonsense is synonymous with absurdity
An absurdity is a thing that is extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously, or the state of being so. "Absurd" is an adjective used to describe an absurdity, e.g., “this encyclopedia article is absurd”. It derives from the Latin absurdusm meaning "out of tune", hence...

 or the ridiculous. Many poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

s, novelists and songwriter
A songwriter is an individual who writes both the lyrics and music to a song. Someone who solely writes lyrics may be called a lyricist, and someone who only writes music may be called a composer...

s have used nonsense in their works, often creating entire works using it for reasons ranging from pure comic amusement or satire, to illustrating a point about language or reasoning. In the philosophy of language and philosophy of science, nonsense is distinguished from sense
Senses are physiological capacities of organisms that provide inputs for perception. The senses and their operation, classification, and theory are overlapping topics studied by a variety of fields, most notably neuroscience, cognitive psychology , and philosophy of perception...

 or meaningfulness, and attempts have been made to come up with a coherent and consistent method of distinguishing sense from nonsense. It is also an important field of study in cryptography
Cryptography is the practice and study of techniques for secure communication in the presence of third parties...

 regarding separating a signal from noise.

Literary nonsense

The phrase "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is a sentence composed by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 Syntactic Structures as an example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical. The term was originally used in his 1955 thesis "Logical Structures of Linguistic Theory"...

" was coined by Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

 as an example of nonsense. The individual words make sense and are arranged according to proper grammatical rules
In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics,...

, yet the result is nonsense. The inspiration for this attempt at creating verbal nonsense came from the idea of contradiction
In classical logic, a contradiction consists of a logical incompatibility between two or more propositions. It occurs when the propositions, taken together, yield two conclusions which form the logical, usually opposite inversions of each other...

 (for a start, how can a green idea be color
Color or colour is the visual perceptual property corresponding in humans to the categories called red, green, blue and others. Color derives from the spectrum of light interacting in the eye with the spectral sensitivities of the light receptors...

?) and seemingly irrelevant and/or incompatible characteristics, which conspire to make the phrase meaningless. The phrase "the square root of Tuesday" operates on the latter principle. This principle is behind the inscrutability of the kōan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?", where one hand would presumably be insufficient for clapping without the intervention of another.

James Joyce
James Joyce
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century...

’s final novel Finnegans Wake
Finnegans Wake
Finnegans Wake is a novel by Irish author James Joyce, significant for its experimental style and resulting reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language. Written in Paris over a period of seventeen years, and published in 1939, two years before the author's...

uses nonsense in a seemingly similar yet dissimilar way: full of portmanteau and strong words, it appears to be pregnant with multiple layers of meaning, but in many passages it is difficult to say whether any one human’s interpretation of a text could be the intended or unintended one.

Nonsense verse

"Jabberwocky" is a nonsense verse poem written by Lewis Carroll in his 1872 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, a sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland...

, a poem
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

 (of nonsense verse
Nonsense verse
Nonsense verse is a form of light, often rhythmical verse, usually for children, depicting peculiar characters in amusing and fantastical situations. It is whimsical and humorous in tone and tends to employ fanciful phrases and meaningless made-up words. Nonsense verse is closely related to...

) found in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
Through the Looking-Glass
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is a work of literature by Lewis Carroll . It is the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland...

by Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson , better known by the pseudonym Lewis Carroll , was an English author, mathematician, logician, Anglican deacon and photographer. His most famous writings are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, as well as the poems "The Hunting of the...

 (1871), is a nonsense poem written in the English language. The word jabberwocky is also occasionally used as a synonym of nonsense.

Nonsense verse is the verse form of literary nonsense, a genre that can manifest in many other ways. Its best-known exponent is Edward Lear
Edward Lear
Edward Lear was an English artist, illustrator, author, and poet, renowned today primarily for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose, and especially his limericks, a form that he popularised.-Biography:...

, author of The Owl and the Pussycat
The Owl and the Pussycat
"The Owl and the Pussycat" is a nonsense poem by Edward Lear, first published in 1871.- Background :Lear wrote the poem for a three-year-old girl, Janet Symonds, the daughter of Lear's friend poet John Addington Symonds and his wife Catherine Symonds...

and hundreds of limericks
Limerick (poetry)
A limerick is a kind of a witty, humorous, or nonsense poem, especially one in five-line or meter with a strict rhyme scheme , which is sometimes obscene with humorous intent. The form can be found in England as of the early years of the 18th century...


Nonsense verse is part of a long line of tradition predating Lear: the nursery rhyme
Nursery rhyme
The term nursery rhyme is used for "traditional" poems for young children in Britain and many other countries, but usage only dates from the 19th century and in North America the older ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’ is still often used.-Lullabies:...

 Hey Diddle Diddle
Hey Diddle Diddle
"Hey Diddle Diddle" is an English nursery rhyme...

could also be termed a nonsense verse. There are also some works which appear to be nonsense verse, but actually are not, such as the popular 1940s song Mairzy Doats
Mairzy Doats
Mairzy Doats is a novelty song composed in 1943 by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston. It was first played on radio station WOR, New York, by Al Trace and his Silly Symphonists. The song made the pop charts several times, with a version by the Merry Macs reaching No. 1 in March 1944...


Lewis Carroll, seeking a nonsense riddle, once posed the question How is a raven
Common Raven
The Common Raven , also known as the Northern Raven, is a large, all-black passerine bird. Found across the northern hemisphere, it is the most widely distributed of all corvids...

 like a writing desk?
. Someone answered him, Because Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective...

 wrote on both
. However, there are other possible answers (e.g. both have inky quill
A quill pen is a writing implement made from a flight feather of a large bird. Quills were used for writing with ink before the invention of the dip pen, metal-nibbed pens, the fountain pen, and, eventually, the ballpoint pen...


Lines of nonsense frequently figure in the refrain
A refrain is the line or lines that are repeated in music or in verse; the "chorus" of a song...

s of folksong
Folk music
Folk music is an English term encompassing both traditional folk music and contemporary folk music. The term originated in the 19th century. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted by mouth, as music of the lower classes, and as music with unknown composers....

s, where nonsense riddle
A riddle is a statement or question or phrase having a double or veiled meaning, put forth as a puzzle to be solved. Riddles are of two types: enigmas, which are problems generally expressed in metaphorical or allegorical language that require ingenuity and careful thinking for their solution, and...

s and knock-knock joke
Knock-knock joke
The knock-knock joke is a type of joke, probably the best-known format of the pun, and is a time-honored "call and answer" exercise.It is a role-play exercise, with a punster and a recipient of wit.The standard format has five lines:...

s are often encountered.


The first verse of Jabberwocky
"Jabberwocky" is a nonsense verse poem written by Lewis Carroll in his 1872 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, a sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland...

by Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson , better known by the pseudonym Lewis Carroll , was an English author, mathematician, logician, Anglican deacon and photographer. His most famous writings are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, as well as the poems "The Hunting of the...

The first four lines of On the Ning Nang Nong
On the Ning Nang Nong
"On the Ning Nang Nong" is a poem written by the comedian Spike Milligan. The poem was featured in the book named Silly Verse For Kids which was written in 1968. In 1998 the poem came first in the BBC's poll of top comic poems...

by Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan
Terence Alan Patrick Seán "Spike" Milligan Hon. KBE was a comedian, writer, musician, poet, playwright, soldier and actor. His early life was spent in India, where he was born, but the majority of his working life was spent in the United Kingdom. He became an Irish citizen in 1962 after the...

The first verse of Spirk Troll-Derisive by James Whitcomb Riley
James Whitcomb Riley
James Whitcomb Riley was an American writer, poet, and best selling author. During his lifetime he was known as the Hoosier Poet and Children's Poet for his dialect works and his children's poetry respectively...

The first four lines of The Mayor of Scuttleton by Mary Mapes Dodge
Mary Mapes Dodge
Mary Mapes Dodge was an American children's writer and editor, best known for her novel Hans Brinker.-Biography:...

The first four lines of Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz; a creation of Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams
Douglas Noel Adams was an English writer and dramatist. He is best known as the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which started life in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy before developing into a "trilogy" of five books that sold over 15 million copies in his lifetime, a television...

Philosophy of language and of science

In the philosophy of language
Philosophy of language
Philosophy of language is the reasoned inquiry into the nature, origins, and usage of language. As a topic, the philosophy of language for analytic philosophers is concerned with four central problems: the nature of meaning, language use, language cognition, and the relationship between language...

 and the philosophy of science
Philosophy of science
The philosophy of science is concerned with the assumptions, foundations, methods and implications of science. It is also concerned with the use and merit of science and sometimes overlaps metaphysics and epistemology by exploring whether scientific results are actually a study of truth...

, nonsense refers to a lack of sens
Sens is a commune in the Yonne department in Burgundy in north-central France.Sens is a sub-prefecture of the department. It is crossed by the Yonne and the Vanne, which empties into the Yonne here.-History:...

e or meaning. Different technical definitions of meaning dilineate sense from nonsense.


In Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He was professor in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947...

's writings, the word "nonsense" carries a special technical meaning which differs significantly from the normal use of the word. In this sense, "nonsense" does not refer to meaningless gibberish, but rather to the lack of sense in the context of sense and reference
Sense and reference
Sinn and bedeutung are usually translated, respectively, as sense and reference. Two different aspects of some terms' meanings, a term's reference is the object that the term refers to, while the term's sense is the way that the term refers to that object.Sinn and bedeutung were introduced by...

. In this context, logical tautologies
Tautology (logic)
In logic, a tautology is a formula which is true in every possible interpretation. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein first applied the term to redundancies of propositional logic in 1921; it had been used earlier to refer to rhetorical tautologies, and continues to be used in that alternate sense...

, and purely mathematical propositions may be regarded as "nonsense". For example, "1+1=2" is a nonsensical proposition.

It is important to note that here "nonsense" does not necessarily carry negative connotations. Indeed, Wittgenstein wrote in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus that some of the propositions contained in his own book should be regarded as nonsense.


The problem of distinguishing sense from nonsense is important in cryptography
Cryptography is the practice and study of techniques for secure communication in the presence of third parties...

 and other intelligence
Intelligence agency
An intelligence agency is a governmental agency that is devoted to information gathering for purposes of national security and defence. Means of information gathering may include espionage, communication interception, cryptanalysis, cooperation with other institutions, and evaluation of public...

 fields. For example, they need to distinguish signal from noise. Cryptanalysts
Cryptanalysis is the study of methods for obtaining the meaning of encrypted information, without access to the secret information that is normally required to do so. Typically, this involves knowing how the system works and finding a secret key...

 have devised algorithm
In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is an effective method expressed as a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning...

s to determine whether a given text is in fact nonsense or not. These algorithms typically analyze the presence of repetitions and redundancy
Redundancy (language)
In linguistics, redundancy is the construction of a phrase that presents some idea using more information, often via multiple means, than is necessary for one to be able understand the idea....

 in a text; in meaningful texts, certain frequently used words—for example, the, is and and in a text in the English language
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

—will recur. A random
Randomness has somewhat differing meanings as used in various fields. It also has common meanings which are connected to the notion of predictability of events....

 scattering of letters, punctuation marks and spaces will not exhibit these regularities. Zipf's law attempts to state this analysis mathematically. By contrast, cryptographers typically seek to make their cipher
In cryptography, a cipher is an algorithm for performing encryption or decryption — a series of well-defined steps that can be followed as a procedure. An alternative, less common term is encipherment. In non-technical usage, a “cipher” is the same thing as a “code”; however, the concepts...

 texts resemble random distributions, to avoid telltale repetitions and patterns which may give an opening for cryptanalysis.

It is harder for cryptographers to deal with the presence or absence of meaning in a text in which the level of redundancy and repetition is higher than found in natural language
Natural language
In the philosophy of language, a natural language is any language which arises in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the innate facility for language possessed by the human intellect. A natural language is typically used for communication, and may be spoken, signed, or written...

s (for example, in the mysterious text of the Voynich manuscript
Voynich manuscript
The Voynich manuscript, described as "the world's most mysterious manuscript", is a work which dates to the early 15th century, possibly from northern Italy. It is named after the book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it in 1912....


Teaching machines to talk nonsense

Scientists have attempted to teach machines to produce nonsense. The Markov chain technique is one method which has been used to generate texts by algorithm and randomizing techniques that seem meaningful. Another method is sometimes called the Mad Libs
Mad Libs
Mad Libs is a phrasal template word game where one player prompts another for a list of words to substitute for blanks in a story, usually with funny results...

method: it involves the creation of templates for various sentence structures, and filling in the blanks with noun phrase
Noun phrase
In grammar, a noun phrase, nominal phrase, or nominal group is a phrase based on a noun, pronoun, or other noun-like word optionally accompanied by modifiers such as adjectives....

s or verb phrase
Verb phrase
In linguistics, a verb phrase or VP is a syntactic unit composed of at least one verb and the dependents of that verb. One can distinguish between two types of VPs, finite VPs and non-finite VPs . While phrase structure grammars acknowledge both, dependency grammars reject the existence of a...

s; these phrase-generation procedures can be looped to add recursion
Recursion is the process of repeating items in a self-similar way. For instance, when the surfaces of two mirrors are exactly parallel with each other the nested images that occur are a form of infinite recursion. The term has a variety of meanings specific to a variety of disciplines ranging from...

, giving the output the appearance of greater complexity and sophistication. Racter
Racter was an artificial intelligence computer program that generated English language prose at random.-History:The name of the program is short for raconteur. The sophistication claimed for the program was likely exaggerated, as could be seen by investigation of the template system of text...

 was a computer program which generated nonsense texts by this method; however, Racter’s book, The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed, proved to have been the product of heavy human editing of the program's output.

See also

  • Absurdity
    An absurdity is a thing that is extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously, or the state of being so. "Absurd" is an adjective used to describe an absurdity, e.g., “this encyclopedia article is absurd”. It derives from the Latin absurdusm meaning "out of tune", hence...

  • Asemic writing
    Asemic writing
    Asemic writing is a wordless open semantic form of writing. The word asemic means "having no specific semantic content". With the nonspecificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret. All of this is similar to the way one would...

  • Dada
    Dada or Dadaism is a cultural movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland, during World War I and peaked from 1916 to 1922. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature—poetry, art manifestoes, art theory—theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a...

    , nonsense as art
  • Gobbledygook
    Gobbledygook or gobbledegook is any text containing jargon or especially convoluted English that results in it being excessively hard to understand or even incomprehensible...

  • Language game
    Language game
    A language game is a system of manipulating spoken words to render them incomprehensible to the untrained ear. Language games are used primarily by groups attempting to conceal their conversations from others...

  • Logorrhoea, an excessively wordy style of abstract prose lacking concrete meaning, i.e. nonsense

  • Mojibake
    , from the Japanese 文字 "character" + 化け "change", is the occurrence of incorrect, unreadable characters shown when computer software fails to render text correctly according to its associated character encoding.-Causes:...

    , random nonsense characters generated by foreign text
  • Nonce word
    Nonce word
    A nonce word is a word used only "for the nonce"—to meet a need that is not expected to recur. Quark, for example, was formerly a nonce word in English, appearing only in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Murray Gell-Mann then adopted it to name a new class of subatomic particle...

  • Nonsense word
    Nonsense word
    A nonsense word, unlike a sememe, may have no definition. If it can be pronounced according to a language's phonotactics, it is a logatome. Nonsense words are used in literature for poetic or humorous effect. Proper names of real or fictional entities are sometimes nonsense words.-See...

  • Sokal affair
    Sokal Affair
    The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies...

  • SCIgen
    SCIgen is a program created by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that randomly generates nonsense in the form of computer science research papers, including graphs, diagrams, and citations...

    , a program that generates nonsense research papers
  • Spoetry
    Spoetry or spoems are poetic verses made primarily from the subject lines of spam e-mail messages.-What is spoetry?:It is unknown as to when the first spoem was started as several writers and bloggers have claimed to have created the form. However, it is estimated that the idea began in 1999 as...

     and Spam Lit
    Spam Lit
    Spam Lit is defined as snippets of nonsensical verse and prose embedded in spam e-mail messages...

    , nonsense text derived from e-mail spam
    E-mail spam
    Email spam, also known as junk email or unsolicited bulk email , is a subset of spam that involves nearly identical messages sent to numerous recipients by email. Definitions of spam usually include the aspects that email is unsolicited and sent in bulk. One subset of UBE is UCE...

  • Word salad
    Word Salad
    Word Salad is a 1979 debut album by Fischer-Z. John Watts and Steve Skolnik formed the band in 1976 whilst at Brunel University. John Watts had been travelling up and down the country playing the club circuit. Fischer-Z was playing a crossover of the New Wave, Punk and Reggae genres...

External links

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