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nonsense word

Nonsense verse

Nonsense verse is the poetic form of literary nonsense, normally composed for humorous effect, which is intentionally and overtly paradoxical, silly, witty, whimsical or otherwise strange. It is particularly common in English, due to the typically absurdist streak in British humour. Some Dadaist writings could also be considered as being nonsense verse.

In some cases, the humor of nonsense verse is based on the incompatibility of phrases which make grammatical sense but semantic nonsense, as in the traditional:

'I see' said the blind man to his deaf and dumb daughter
as he picked up his hammer and saw.

Other nonsense verse makes use of nonsense words -- words without a clear meaning or any meaning at all. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear both made good use of this type of nonsense in some of their verse. In these poems, the grammar and syntax are perfectly well-formed, and each nonsense word has a clear part of speech. The first verse of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky ...

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

... illustrates this nonsense technique perfectly, despite Humpty Dumpty's later explanation of some of the unclear words within it.

Still other nonsense verse uses muddled or ambiguous grammar as well as invented words, as in John Lennon's "The Faulty Bagnose":

The Mungle pilgriffs far awoy
Religeorge too thee worled.
Sam fells on the waysock-side
And somforbe on a gurled,
With all her faulty bagnose!

Here, awoy fills the place of "away" in the expression "far away", but also suggests the exclamation "ahoy", suitable to a voyage (or pilgriffage?). Likewise, worled and gurled suggest "world" and "girl" but have the -ed form of a past-tense verb. Somforbe resists interpretation -- possibly a noun; possibly a slurred verb phrase.

However not all nonsense verse relies on word play. Some conjures up nonsensical situations, for instance Edward Lear's poem, The Jumblies has a perfectly comprehensible chorus.

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.

The significance of the colour of their heads and hands is not apparent and the verse appears to be nonsense.

Likewise Christopher Isherwood's poem ...

The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

from 'Poems Past and Present', J.M. Dent and Sons (Canada) Ltd. fourth printing, 1959

... makes grammatical and semantic sense and yet lies so earnestly and absurdly that it qualifies as complete nonsense.

There is a long tradition of nonsense verse in English. The Anglo-Saxon riddles are an early form. For instance ...

The creature ate its words -- it seemed to me
strangely weird -- when I heard this wonder:
that it had devoured -- the song of a man.
A thief in the thickness of night -- gloriously mouthed
the source of knowledge -- but the thief was not
the least bit wiser -- for the words in his mouth.

(Answer: probably a bookworm) The poem is nonsense until one figures out the answer.

The poem ...

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back-to-back they faced one another,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
One was blind and the other couldn't see,
So they chose a dummy for a referee.
A blind man went to see fair play,
A dumb man went to shout "hooray!"
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and shot the two dead boys.
A paralyzed donkey walking by,
Kicked the copper in the eye,
Sent him through a rubber wall,
Into a dry ditch and drowned them all.
(If you don't believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man -- he saw it too!)

... makes even more extreme use of word incompatibility by pairing a number of polar opposites such as day/night, paralyzed/walking, dry/drowned, lie/true, in conjunction with lesser incompatibilities such as swords/shot and rubber/wall.

Many nursery rhymes are nonsense, unless one knows the context or background; some say that Mother Goose rhymes were originally written to parody the aristocracy while appearing to be nothing more than nonsense nursery rhymes. For instance ...

Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Limericks are probably the best known of nonsense verse, although the form tends to be used for bawdy or straightforward humorous effect nowadays rather than for nonsensical effect.

Among writers in English noted for nonsense verse are Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, Mervyn Peake, Colin West, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss and Spike Milligan. The Martian Poets and Ivor Cutler are considered by some to be in the nonsense tradition.

Russian nonsense poets include Daniil Kharms and Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, particularly his work under the pseudonym Kozma Prutkov, and some French exponents are Charles Cros and Robert Desnos. The best-known Dutch Nonsense poet is Cees Buddingh'.

Among German writers, Christian Morgenstern and Ringelnatz are the best-known ones, and both still popular. Robert Gernhardt is a contemporary one. Morgenstern's Nasobēm is an imaginary being, though less frightful than the Jabberwock:

OriginalTranslation
Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
einher das Nasobēm,
von seinem Kind begleitet.
Es steht noch nicht im Brehm.
Es steht noch nicht im Meyer.
Und auch im Brockhaus nicht.
Es trat aus meiner Leyer
zum ersten Mal ans Licht.
Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
(wie schon gesagt) seitdem,
von seinem Kind begleitet,
einher das Nasobēm.
Upon its noses strideth
Along the Noseybum,
With it its child abideth.
It's not yet found in Brehm (a zoological reference work).
It's not yet found in Meyer (a dictionary equivalent to Webster's).
Nor in the Brockhaus (another dictionary, equivalent to the OED).
It trotted from my lyre,
As first it came to be.
Upon its noses strideth
(As said before) since then,
With it its child abideth,
Along the Noseybum.

F.W. Bernstein's observation that

Die schärfsten Kritiker der Elche The sharpest critics of the elks
waren früher selber welche used to be ones themselves
has become practically a proverb in German. While strictly speaking nonsense (elk have no critics), it nonetheless expresses the truth that often the most strident opponents of an ideology are its former adherents. On the cult show "Max Headroom", Edison Carter once made a similar observation: "Converts are the worst bigots."

One contemporary example of nonsense verse is Vogon poetry, found in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

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