Nonsense is a verbal communication or written text which appears to be a human language or other symbolic system, but in fact does not carry any identifiable meaning.

Distinguishing sense from nonsense

While Emily Dickinson wrote that:

Much madness is divinest Sense
To the discerning Eye…

...the problem lies in the discernment. Distinguishing meaningful utterances from nonsense is not a trivial task. Confronted with a lengthy text in an unknown script, how does one determine whether those characters in fact contained a meaningful text, or were simply set using the equivalent of printer’s pi or a lorem ipsum-style text?

The problem is important in cryptography and other intelligence fields, where it is important to distinguish signal from noise. Cryptanalysts have devised algorithms for this purpose, to determine whether a given text is in fact nonsense or not. These algorithms typically analyze the presence of repetitions and redundancy in a text; in meaningful texts, certain frequently used words — for example, the, is and and in a text in the English language — will frequently recur. A random scattering of letters, punctuation marks and spaces will not exhibit these regularities. Zipf’s Law attempts to state this analysis in the language of mathematics. By contrast, cryptographers typically seek to make their cipher texts resemble random distributions, to avoid telltale repetitions and patterns which may give an opening for cryptanalysis.

Teaching machines to talk nonsense

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 languages (for example, in the mysterious text of the Voynich manuscript). Some have attempted to create text which carries no meaning, but still complies with the regularities predicted by Zipf’s Law. The Markov chain technique is one such method, and it has occasionally been used in surrealistic jokes.

The Markov chain technique is one method which has been used to generate texts by algorithm and randomizing techniques that seem meaningful. Another could be called the Mad Libs method: it involves the creation of templates for various sentence structures, and filling in the blanks with noun phrases or verb phrases; these phrase-generation procedures can be looped to add recursion, giving the output the appearance of greater complexity and sophistication. Racter 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.

Literary nonsense

The phrase “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” was coined by Noam Chomsky as an example of nonsense. The individual words make sense and are arranged according to proper grammatical rules, yet the result is nonsense. The inspiration for this attempt at creating verbal nonsense came from the idea of contradiction (for a start, how can a green idea be colorless?) 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 koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, where one hand would presumably be insufficient for clapping without the intervention of another.

Still, the human will to find meaning is strong; green ideas might be ideas associated with a green political party, and colorless green ideas could describe them as lacking in color, or defeated and uninspiring. For some, the human impulse to find meaning in what is actually random or nonsensical is what makes people find luck in coincidence, believe in omens and divination or engage in conversation with a computer (see ELIZA effect).

The dreamlike language of James Joyce’s final “novel” Finnegans Wake sheds light on nonsense in a similar way: full of portmanteau words, it appears to be pregnant with multiple layers of meaning, but in many passages it is difficult to say whether any one person’s interpretation of a text could be the “intended” or “correct” one.

Jabberwocky”, a poem (of nonsense verse) found in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll (1871), is generally considered to be one of the greatest nonsense poems written in the English language. The word “jabberwocky” is also occasionally used as a synonym of nonsense.

Nonsense verse

Nonsense verse is the verse form of literary nonsense, a genre that can manifest in many other ways. Nonsense verse represents a long tradition; its best-known exponent is Edward Lear, author of The Owl and the Pussycat and hundreds of limericks.

Nonsense verse comes from a tradition older than Lear: the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle is also a sort of nonsense verse. There are also some things which appear to be nonsense verse, but actually are not, such as the popular 1940s song “Mairzy Doats”.

Lines of nonsense frequently figure in the refrains of folksongs, where nonsense riddles and knock-knock jokes are often encountered. Lewis Carroll, seeking a nonsense riddle, once posed the question How is a raven like a writing desk?. Someone answered him, Because Poe wrote on both. However, there are other possible answers (e.g. both have inky quills).


Nonsense is found in multiple places as humor, though it is often considered childish. At other times, a nonsensical statement can seem to weave a web of intricate philosophy.

Here are some examples of nonsense: "Though falsely true, an unverifiable statement may be conceived", "A sharp, blunt thought may be used to sew" and "Assuming that an ox is brown, what is the capital of Rhode Island?".


  • Kahn, David, The Codebreakers (Scribner, 1996) ISBN 0-684-83130-9

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