Literary nonsense  

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"The seagulls by their looks suggest that Emma is their name" -- "The Seagulls" (1905) by Christian Morgenstern

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Literary nonsense (or nonsense literature) is a broad categorization of literature that uses sensical and nonsensical elements to defy language conventions or logical reasoning. Even though the most well-known form of literary nonsense is nonsense verse, the genre is present in many forms of literature.

The effect of nonsense is often caused by an excess of meaning, rather than a lack of it. Nonsense is often humorous in nature, although its humor is derived from its nonsensical nature, as opposed to most humor which is funny because it does make sense.



The roots of literary nonsense are divided into two branches. The first and older branch is traced back to the folk tradition, folktales, dramas, rhymes, songs, and games, such as the nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle". Schoolyard rhymes and the literary figure Mother Goose are somewhat contemporary incarnations of this style of writing. Its role in the folk tradition varies from mnemonic device to parody and satire.

The second, newer branch of literary nonsense has its origins in the intellectual absurdities of court poets, scholars, and intellectuals of various kinds. These writers often created sophisticated nonsense forms of Latin parodies, religious travesties and political satire.

Today's literary nonsense comes from a combination of both branches. Though not the first to write this hybrid kind of nonsense, Edward Lear developed and popularized it in his many limericks (starting with A Book of Nonsense, 1846) and other famous texts such as "The Owl and the Pussycat", "The Dong with a Luminous Nose," "The Jumblies" and "The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World." Lewis Carroll continued this trend, making literary nonsense a worldwide phenomenon with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Carroll's "Jabberwocky" which appears in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is often considered quintessential nonsense literature.


In literary nonsense, formal diction and tone may be balanced with elements of absurdity. It is most easily recognizable by the various techniques it uses to create nonsensical effects, such as faulty cause and effect, portmanteau, neologism, reversals and inversions, imprecision, simultaneity, picture/text incongruity, arbitrariness, infinite repetition, negativity or mirroring, and misappropriation. Nonsense tautology, reduplication, and absurd precision have also been used effectively in the nonsense genre. For a text to be within the bounds of literary nonsense, it must have an abundance of nonsense techniques woven into the fabric of the piece. If the text employs only occasional nonsense techniques, then it may not be classified as literary nonsense, though there may be a nonsensical effect to certain portions of the work.

Nonsense literature is effective because of the human desire to find meaning everywhere, in everything, and where perhaps none exists.

What nonsense is not

Gibberish can be a form of nonsense, but true nonsense literature has semantic, syntactic, phonetic or contextual meaning. Literature that employs the use of neologisms or made-up words is distinguished from gibberish if the context assigns meaning to those words or if word play is used to associate the gibberish with familiar words, such as "Jabberwocky" or "Hey Diddle Diddle".

Nonsense is distinct from fantasy, though there are sometimes resemblances between them. While nonsense may employ the strange creatures, other worldly situations, magic, and talking animals of fantasy, these supernatural phenomena are not nonsensical if they have a discernible logic supporting their existence. The distinction lies in the coherent and unified nature of fantasy. Everything follows logic within the rules of the fantasy world; the nonsense world, on the other hand, has no system of logic, although it may imply the existence of an inscrutable one, just beyond our grasp. The nature of magic within an imaginary world is an example of this distinction. Fantasy worlds employ the presence of magic to logically explain the impossible. In nonsense literature, magic is rare but when it does occur, its nonsensical nature only adds to the mystery rather than logically explaining anything. An example of nonsensical magic occurs in Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories, when Jason Squiff, in possession of a magical "gold buckskin whincher", has his hat, mittens, and shoes turn into popcorn because, according to the "rules" of the magic, "You have a letter Q in your name and because you have the pleasure and happiness of having a Q in your name you must have a popcorn hat, popcorn mittens and popcorn shoes".

Riddles only appear to be nonsense until the answer is found. The most famous nonsense riddle is only so because it originally had no answer. In Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter asks Alice "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?" When Alice gives up, the Hatter replies that he does not know either, creating a nonsensical riddle. Some seemingly nonsense texts are actually riddles, such as the popular 1940s song "Mairzy Doats", which at first appears to have little discernible meaning but has a discoverable message.


While most contemporary nonsense has been written for children, the form has an extensive history in adult configurations before the nineteenth century. Figures such as John Hoskyns, Henry Peacham, John Sandford, and John Taylor lived in the early seventeenth century and were noted nonsense authors in their time. Nonsense was also an important element in the works of Flann O'Brien and Eugene Ionesco. Literary nonsense, as opposed to the folk forms of nonsense that have always existed in written history, was only first written for children in the early nineteenth century. It was popularized by Edward Lear and then later by Lewis Carroll. Today literary nonsense enjoys a shared audience of adults and children.

Nonsense writers

The most celebrated nonsense writers in English literature are Edward Lear (1812–1888) and Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) (1832–1898).

Other nonsense writers in English: Template:Div col

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Writers of nonsense from other languages include: Template:Div col

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Popular culture

David Byrne, frontman of the art rock/new wave group Talking Heads, employed nonsensical techniques in songwriting. Byrne often combined coherent yet unrelated phrases to make up nonsensical lyrics in songs such as: "Burning Down the House", "Making Flippy Floppy" and "Girlfriend Is Better". This tendency formed the basis of the title for the Talking Heads concert movie, Stop Making Sense. More recently, Byrne published Arboretum (2006), a volume of tree-like diagrams that are, "mental maps of imaginary territory." He continues, explaining the aspect of nonsense: "Irrational logic--[...]. The application of logical scientific rigor and form to basically irrational premises. To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense, with a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense."

Syd Barrett, one-time frontman and founder of Pink Floyd, was known for his often nonsensical songwriting influenced by Lear and Carroll that featured heavily on Pink Floyd's first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Glen Baxter's comic work is often nonsense, relying on the baffling interplay between word and image.

Zippy the Pinhead, by Bill Griffith, is an American strip that mixes philosophy, including what has been called "Heideggerian disruptions," and pop culture in its nonsensical processes.

See also

nonsense verse

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