Nonsense! That’s an exclamation “of impatience, contradiction, contempt, etc.” that means “How foolish!” or “How absurd!”


That’s an exclamation “of impatience, contradiction, contempt, etc.” that means “How foolish!” or “How absurd!”

But there’s more to nonsense than being absurd or having no meaning.

As a noun, it also can be “things of relatively no importance or value; trivialities” or “impudent, foolish or evasive behavior.”

One of the best things about “nonsense” is all the colorful synonyms it has inspired down through the years — some of which are unsuitable for this venue.

Among the others, some of my favorites, as listed in “Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus,” are “applesauce,” “balderdash,” “baloney,” “bilge,” “blather,” “bosh,” “bunkum,” “bushwa,” “claptrap,” “drivel,” “eyewash,” “fiddle-faddle,” “flapdoodle,” “guff,” “hogwash,” “hokum,” “hooey,” “horsefeathers,” “humbug,” “malarkey,” “piffle,” “poppycock,” “rubbish,” “tommyrot,” “twaddle” and “windbaggery.”

With such an impressive array, it really doesn’t seem necessary to resort to any of the vulgar options.

There’s also a literary brand of nonsense. The unabridged Webster’s defines it as consisting of “humorous or whimsical” compositions “typically with odd, grotesque or anomalous themes, characters and actions and often marked by the use of words coined for the purpose that sometimes have an evocative character but no precise or generally accepted meaning.”

That last part would certainly include “nonce words” — those invented “for a single or particular occasion” — which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

For a thoroughly entertaining mix of nonsense and nonce words, I recommend Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” from “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There,” first published in 1872.

It contains 28 lines and 166 words, not counting the title. The first four-line stanza is repeated, and a number of other words also appear more than once.

By my calculation, there are 89 words that make at least one appearance. Of those, I would classify 16 as “pure” nonce words — you probably won’t find them anywhere other than in the poem or references to it. No standard dictionary will help you understand them or even pronounce them.

Eight other words sound like inventions but apparently existed before the poem appeared, although I can’t make up my mind about “beamish.” It seems to depend on what Carroll intended it to mean.

Five other creations were so memorable that they became part of our vocabulary: the title (or the character that inspired it, the “Jabberwock”), and “bandersnatch” (“a wildly grotesque or bizarre individual”), “chortled” (to chortle is “to make a gleeful chuckling or snorting sound”), “frabjous” (“splendid; magnificent”) and “galumphing” (“moving or walking heavily and clumsily”).

And “jabberwocky” is used for “meaningless syllables that seem to make sense; gibberish.” It doesn’t get any better than that: A fabricated word is the title of a nonsense poem that becomes an accepted term for nonsense.

I’ll leave you with the opening (and closing) stanza of this literary marvel:

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

Now who can argue with that?

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