The word is often used in newsgroup and hacker culture to indicate that someone is being ironic, humorous or surreal. Often placed at the end of a statement in brackets (fnord) to make the ironic purpose clear, it is a label that may be applied to any random or surreal sentence, coercive subtext, or anything jarringly out of context (intentionally or not). It is sometimes used as a metasyntactic variable in programming. It appears in the Church of the SubGenius recruitment film Arise! and has been used in the SubGenius newsgroup alt.slack.
In these novels, the interjection "fnord" is given hypnotic power over the unenlightened. Under the Illuminati program, children in grade school are taught to be unable to consciously see the word "fnord". For the rest of their lives, every appearance of the word subconsciously generates a feeling of uneasiness and confusion, and prevents rational consideration of the subject. This results in a perpetual low-grade state of fear in the populace. The government acts on the premise that a fearful populace keeps them in power.
In the Shea/Wilson construct, fnords are scattered liberally in the text of newspapers and magazines, causing fear and anxiety in those following current events. However, there are no fnords in the advertisements, encouraging a consumerist society. It is implied in the books that fnord is not the actual word used for this task, but merely a substitute, since most readers would be unable to see the actual word.
To "see the fnords" means to be unaffected by the supposed hypnotic power of the word or, more loosely, of other fighting words. The term may also be used to refer to the experience of becoming aware of a phenomenon's ubiquity after first observing it. The phrase "I have seen the fnords" was graffitied on a British railway bridge throughout the 1980s and 1990s, until the bridge was upgraded. The bridge is known locally as "Anarchy Bridge". It is located between Earlsdon and Coventry city centre. The bridge and the phrase were mentioned in the novel A Touch of Love by Jonathan Coe.
The lack of a clear definition of the word, and its popularity among certain groups on the internet, allowed it to be appropriated as a placeholder word (a metasyntactic variable) in computer programming, particularly by those with ties to Discordianism or the Church of the SubGenius. It has also been found useful as the name for a "techno cultural" conference, computer programs, and as a general placeholder word in computing literature.
^FNORD, excerpt from The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. 'Suddenly I saw Hagbard's eyes burning into me and heard his voice: ``Your heart will remain calm. Your adrenalin gland will remain calm. Calm, all-over calm. You will not panic. you will look at the fnord and see it. You will not evade it or black it out. You will stay calm and face it. And further back, way back: my first-grade teacher writing FNORD on the blackboard, while a wheel with a spiral design turned and turned on his desk, turned and turned, and his voice droned on, IF YOU DON'T SEE THE FNORD IT CAN'T EAT YOU, DON'T SEE THE FNORD, DON'T SEE THE FNORD . . .'