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Nonsense is a communication, via speech, writing, or any other symbolic system, that lacks any coherent meaning. Sometimes in ordinary usage, nonsense is synonymous with absurdity or the ridiculous. Many poets, novelists and songwriters 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 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 regarding separating a signal from noise.
The phrase "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" was coined by Noam Chomsky as an example of nonsense. However, this can be easily confused with poetic symbolism. 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 and seemingly irrelevant and/or incompatible characteristics, which conspire to make the phrase meaningless, but is open to interpretation. The phrase "the square root of Tuesday" (not a similar example; the lemondrop sunshine is more comparable) 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’s final novel Finnegans Wake also uses nonsense: 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.
Jabberwocky, a poem (of nonsense verse) found in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll (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, author of The Owl and the Pussycat and hundreds of limericks.
Nonsense verse is part of a long line of tradition predating Lear: the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle 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.
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).
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
The Crankadox leaned o'er the edge of the moon,
And wistfully gazed on the sea
Where the Gryxabodill madly whistled a tune
To the air of "Ti-fol-de-ding-dee."
The Mayor of Scuttleton burned his nose
Trying to warm his copper toes;
He lost his money and spoiled his will
By signing his name with an icicle quill;
Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes
Philosophy of language and of science
In Ludwig Wittgenstein'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. In this context, logical tautologies, and purely mathematical propositions may be regarded as "nonsense". For example, "1+1=2" is a nonsensical proposition. Wittgenstein wrote in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus that some of the propositions contained in his own book should be regarded as nonsense. Used in this way, "nonsense" does not necessarily carry negative connotations.
Starting from Wittgenstein, but through an original perspective, the Italian philosopher Leonardo Vittorio Arena, in his book Nonsense as the meaning, highlights this positive meaning of nonsense to undermine every philosophical conception which does not take note of the absolute lack of meaning of the world and life. Nonsense implies the destruction of all views or opinions, on the wake of the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. In the name of nonsense, it is finally refused the conception of duality and the Aristotelian formal logic.
The problem of distinguishing sense from nonsense is important in cryptography and other intelligence fields. For example, they need to distinguish signal from noise. Cryptanalysts have devised algorithms 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 recur. A random 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 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 languages (for example, in the mysterious text of the Voynich manuscript).
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 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.
- "Top poetry is complete nonsense". BBC News. 10 October 1998.
- A Nonsense Anthology collected by Carolyn Wells from Project Gutenberg
- Schroeder, Severin (2006). Wittgenstein: the way out of the fly-bottle. Polity. p. 110. ISBN 978-0-7456-2615-4.
- Biletzki, Anat and Anat Matar, "Ludwig Wittgenstein", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition) "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy"
- Kahn, David, The Codebreakers (Scribner, 1996) ISBN 0-684-83130-9
- Arena, Leonardo Vittorio, Nonsense as the Meaning, ebook, 2012.