A Note on the Meaning of Nonsense (second edition)

By Per Aage Brandt

For Irving Massey


There are at least two distinct concepts of nonsense. One of them leads to a new view of metaphor, metonymy, and intentional word-based opacity. In the line of Carroll’s  Jabberwocky, the dada version of nonsense poetry is discussed in the perspective of modernism and the general cultural significance of nonsense.

  1. The concepts of nonsense.

Inspired by Jewish mysticism, Baruch Spinoza explained in his Ethics that since God is nature, human thinking is one of his creations, a part of nature that comes to our mind through the senses in the form of imaginations; logic can then transform our empirical imaginations to thoughts. Given this metaphysical foundation, thoughts cannot strictly speaking be false. Ideas are either made clear by logic (this is Spinoza’s Cartesian heritage) or left unclear and fuzzy; Spinoza’s treatise on the nature of the world is therefore formulated as one huge logical calculus or axiomatic system.[1] Imaginations that are not made clear by logic remain confused and are declared meaningless, i.e. nonsensical. This view is carried forwards through empiricism and restated in the last century by the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism (or logical empiricism); it is now more or less the common sense of analytic philosophy and epistemology. In this view, either a statement – a proposition, an assertion, a formulation of an idea – is true or else it is nonsense. Science consists of sufficiently true statements, and by contrast, “metaphysics” is all the rest, which is treated as just a jumble of – not even false, since falseness is ruled out, but – ridiculous, nonsensical statements.

An alternative view would be that thought actively interprets sense experience and yields conceptions of reality that are syntheses of what the mind can conceptualize and what the lifeworld offers to perceive, directly or indirectly, through observation, measurement, comparison, and interpretation. The macro-physical lifeworld consists of a cultural and natural space-time and its contents, including other minds’ thoughts as expressed by language or other semiotic means. In this perspective, which comes closer to René Descartes’ view, thoughts can be sufficiently true to ground beliefs, and they can indeed be wrong, that is, false, while staying meaningful, because we can understand what they refer to in a possible belief even if they happen or turn out not to sufficiently capture the reality they refer to. Falsehood and nonsense are thus different, in this view. Expressed thought cannot be nonsensical, on this account, in so far as it describes a possible belief. ‘Sense’ is thought, nonsense is ‘non-thought’. Thought can be fuzzy, sloppy, self-contradictory, incoherent, as religious and ideological thoughts often are, and incoherent beliefs are perfectly possible. Even such thought is or makes ‘sense’. However, expressions can be nonsensical, namely if they do not express any thought.

  1. Jokes.

Jokes and puns are manifestations of nonsense in this non-analytical sense. Such expressions are semiotically enigmatic – they may actively and intentionally “express” something we may call non-thought.[2] They are often formed as short narratives ending in a non-thought. Two examples:

  1. A man with two left feet went into the shoe shop and asked, “Do you have any flip-flips?” [Does the man really think that ‘flip’ means left, and ‘flop’ means right (foot)? – If not, a non-thought].
  2. Two brooms decide to get married. The wedding is lovely. After the wedding, the bride broom says to the groom broom, “I think I am going to have a little whisk broom!!!”. – “Impossible!!”, says the groom broom. “We haven’t even swept together!!!”. [Does the broom groom really think that ‘sweeping together’ would make his wife pregnant? – A non-thought]


Of course, such nonsense may and often does symptomatically express something else, namely some unnamed traumatic fears, concerns, or desires, as psychoanalysis has convincingly demonstrated since Sigmund Freud’s Der Witz (1905). Freudians would see the protagonist in (1) as an Oidipus, and the broom in (2) as a potential cuckold.

While analytical nonsense, such as the content of religious or ideological assertions, is not intentionally related to humor at all, rather the opposite, this alternative sort of nonsense, different from falsehood, is often both intentionally funny and entertaining, sometimes even intelligent or interesting as (grotesque or absurd) literature. Of course, laughter can be of both sorts: we laugh at false assertions and beliefs if we see them as symptoms of stupidity; and we laugh at expressive nonsense of all kinds, since it consists, as in jokes, both of spectacular simulations of stupidity and possible manifestations of ‘deeper meanings’, pre-reflexive emotional contents that may precede explicit thoughts in human minds. This is a possible meaning of ‘non-thought’.[3]

  1. Metaphor.

Expressive nonsense typically stages a speaker as a character embodying an event of non-thinking.[4] By contrast, analytical nonsense is exempt of theatricalization; any unembodied doctrine can be declared to be “nonsense”. Consider the case of metaphor. To see or characterize something as being something else that it is not, even according to the subject of the seeing or the saying, such as: “Achilles is a lion”, or “this surgeon is a butcher”, or “this president is a clown”, is metaphoric. Such statements would literally be false if asserted, since the predicates are categories taken from semantic domains that are different from those of the logical subjects. The surgeon in question could well be a butcher also, for example as a hobby, but this is of course not what the user of the metaphor intends to say. The president could be a clown as a side activity, but that is not the point of the predication as a metaphor. The blending of imaginary contents in metaphor creates a form of immediate shock of intentional un-truth and non-thought, that is, of nonsense, quickly made meaningful by the schematization that produces the normative semantic result to take away (lion, butcher, clown: bravery, unethical behavior, incompetence, etc.). The semantic result is typically an evaluation, and this normative meaning, or schematization, presupposes a certain cultural initiation; within specific cultures, the interpretation of linguistic metaphor works automatically and smoothly. In this reading, metaphor as such is in fact an instance of expressive nonsense followed by schematized meaning. It is a trope based on a semantic relation of predication which is blatantly nonsensical, asserted as such because it is intended to produce the schematic effect that generates a pre-reflexive thought, through a process of mental space blending.[5]  The predicative shock of non-thought in un-truth (Jensen is a snake! – This person is an animal?) primarily yields a flash of nonsense, which explains the emotional emphasis present in the normative semantic result.

  1. On metonymy.

Another trope that uses blatantly untrue predication is metonymy. “I have Proust in my briefcase and Picasso on my wall” – nearly impossible statements if taken literally, but nevertheless very likely as intended pieces of information on the speaker’s cultural interests. On the other hand, “Bannon is the brain of the government”, is a fine statement, even as the person called Bannon cannot literally be a brain, though he is likely to have one. Metonymies are basically rhetorical expressions of respect or disrespect, reactions to authority. Accordingly, aggressive metonymies like the Danish idiom calling a person you don’t like an “ass with ears”, en røv med ører, admittedly offer some imaginary entertainment, but are still not just nonsense. They do contain blatantly untrue information, such as in this example, seeing a person as a body part: letting the hearer see a face as a behind, in the place of an embodied person.  The imagery resulting from the predication does not in itself make sense as information or thought, and it therefore attracts a schema – Proust, Picasso: totum pro parte /respect/; looking-away-from-object-and-toward-agent. The ass-with-ears: pars pro toto /disrespect/: looking-away-from the person as unworthy of face-to-face contact (which would be, in casu, face-to-ass contact).[6]

Metaphor and metonymy are thus in fact instances of expressive nonsense. The process of meaning production in these tropes is particular, since it involves indirect schematization, a semantic phenomenon that remains a widely ignored, recent finding in semiotic research.[7] The initial predicative shock of non-thought in un-truth yields a flash of nonsense activating an emotional schematization.

  1. On Jabberwocky. Literary nonense.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, (1871), one poetic text stands out and has become a notorious example of literary nonsense.[8] On the White King’s table, there is a book, and Alice opens it on a page, maybe written by the King, who had complained that his pencil is wrong – …”it writes all manner of things that I don’t intend––”, and she finds this poem, in mirror writing:


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe


“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”


He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought –

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.


And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!


One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.


“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.


In chapter six of the book, Humpty Dumpty offers some explanations of the non-existent words in the poem, words that are now part of English literature and have migrated into the lexicon, e.g. frumious, vorpal. But even at first glance, we see that grammar and morphology are sufficiently normal to let the sentences of the text form a kind of folk-tale narrative framed by the description of a state of affairs; a father sends his son to kill a monster, the Jabberwock; and all is well in the end, as in the beginning. The replacement of some adjectives, nouns, and verbs with non-existent words in the text produces a certain opacity, whereas the general design of this ballad is simple and clear.

Words without existence are without meaning, except in contexts. The immediate effect is expressive nonsense, but if the grammatical context is inherently semantic, the pseudo-words get accepted by the language-oriented mind and take on an approximate meaning in the sentence where they appear. Roughly, Jabberwocky keeps the morphemes and alters some of the lexemes; the altered lexemes are then interpreted by their morphemic contexts and the discursive status of the text, typically as a narrative.

  1. Literary formalism.

The French group of writers Oulipo invented an important amount of methods for creating strange and “potentially literary” language. One of the first examples of such methods is the so-called S+7, suggested in 1961 by Jean Lescure. It consists in replacing all nouns in a previously established and preferably well-known text by another noun found in a (small) dictionary seven steps further on.[9]

“Here is an example of such a poem. The extract, from [William] Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

The transformed version, using S+7:

To see a Worm in a Grampus of Sandblast
And a Hebe in a Wild Flu
Hold inflow in the palsy of your hangar
And Ethos in a housefly.

And here is a version of S+7, by Harryette Mullen, from her poetry book Sleeeping With The Dictionary [2002, Berkeley: University of California Press].[10] She has taken Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130, and replaced the key words with phrases from [contemporary sources], I dunno . . . perhaps, the ads section from a newspaper or telephone book? The resulting poem, I think, makes some interesting commentary on contemporary notions of race, beauty and consumerism; as well as being kinda funny.

[W. Shakespeare, Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.]

Dim Lady
My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in Shakey’s Pizza Parlors, red and white,

but no such picnic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I’m aware that Muzak has a hipper beat. I don’t know any Marilyn Monroes. My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who’s hyped beyond belief.”

In the Blake example, above, the contrast between the high tone of the original and the unrelated nouns is striking. Reportedly, S+7 always works best if the source text is emphatic, bombastic or just canonical.[11] The presence of the words inserted by the mechanical rule destroys the intentional flow of language and thereby creates an effect of real, massive nonsense, in the semiotical sense. When the expressive intentionality disappears, words become things, and texts become strange monsters composed by good grammar and items as uncanny as elements in an unknown code. The sentences still formally refer, but the grounding nominal words have lost their reference, because they are incompatible in these sentences. Psychotic language can share these properties. As does Jabberwocky, S+7 exploits this contrast between lexical opacity and grammatical transparency, but more radically so, since the nominal incompatibility blocks the narrative or argumentative coherence.

The Shakespeare/Mullen example is very different, however. In this poem, terms from the original sonnet are replaced by coherent but lexically unrelated modern terms, the argumentative and concessive logic is preserved, and the anti-baroque style of the original is maintained. The result is cute and pleasantly devoid of nonsense in any sense.

  1. On dada.

Radical nonsense has been a prominent component in modernist esthetics from the days of the Züricher Café Voltaire and its creator, the German poet Hugo Ball’s Dada Manifesto (1916).

Here is one of his most famous poems:

Gadji beri bimba

gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori
gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini
gadji beri bin blassa glassala laula lonni cadorsu sassala bim

gadjama tuffm i zimzalla binban gligla wowolimai bin beri ban
o katalominai rhinozerossola hopsamen laulitalomini hoooo
gadjama rhinozerossola hopsamen
bluku terullala blaulala loooo

zimzim urullala zimzim urullala zimzim zanzibar zimzalla zam
elifantolim brussala bulomen brussala bulomen tromtata
velo da bang band affalo purzamai affalo purzamai lengado tor
gadjama bimbalo glandridi glassala zingtata pimpalo ögrögöööö
viola laxato viola zimbrabim viola uli paluji malooo

tuffm im zimbrabim negramai bumbalo negramai bumbalo tuffm i zim
gadjama bimbala oo beri gadjama gaga di gadjama affalo pinx
gaga di bumbalo bumbalo gadjamen
gaga di bling blong
gaga blung

Here, grammar is absent, and so is the distinction of morphemes and lexemes. A lot of Ball’s pseudo-words are nice (presumably) dactylic creatures : bimbalo, bumbalo, pimpalo, zimbrabim, zanzibar – suggesting something like swahili, spoken in Zanzibar (and Tanzania in general). Some zoological hints lighten up the litany: rhinozerossola, elifantolim. There is no sentence structure to pick up in this ‘simsalabim’, here zimzalla zam.[12]

Ball wrote in his Dada Manifesto (1916):

“I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows . . . Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn’t let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words.

Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing by itself. Why shouldn’t I find it? Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.”

There is in this poetic project a feeling of “get[ting] rid of the filth” of corrupt ordinary language and its words that have passed through “hands worn smooth by coins”, that is, money. There is definitely a sense of poetry as an act of catharsis, a ritual of purification that removes meaning and obtains a state of new beginning, a sense of pure nonsense as regained purity outside of meaning polluted by modern money-driven madness. Ball was in contact with Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter, where abstraction was worked out in a similar gesture of purification from figurative ‘filth’. The entire anti-figurative modernism in art was inspired by this gesture of “getting rid of” social filth, or, maybe, catharsis.

  1. Modern chamanism.

Nonsense motivated by a search for purity and performed as a shamanistic ritual of exorcism makes it artistic par excellence as a theatrical act that no longer serves entertainment, pedagogy, humor (as the English nonsense verses) or carries a critical meaning (as later in Oulipo), but mainly as a sort of sacrifice: rationality, thinking, discourse, social values etc. are no longer criticized but bluntly and bodily sacrificed in the act, maybe to be experienced as an artistic expression of contrition to be shared by the avant-garde community in the implicit hope of some sort of transcendental redemption. Ball’s poetry is music, one may say; language disappears into the sacred music of nonsense, whose schema is purification, cure of a presupposed cultural disease.

  1. On music.

In ordinary songs, musical phrasing (melody) replaces prosody, and the singer theatrically replaces and plays the role of the first-person instance in the text. So when we sing, “Carry me Back to Ole Virginny”, we enact certain hypothetical feelings of confederate soldiers of the Civil War, but we do not ourselves have to want to go to Virginia. Since the utterance thus does not express our thought, we might again say that it is an instance of expressive nonsense. In that case, it represents the most important form of nonsense in the entire human world: role playing and theatrically overtaking voices and thoughts of the past (or the present, or some possible world). To the extent that the actual singing does not involve identification with the textually expressed subjectivity, but only a placement of syllables and words on notes, we might in fact compare it to Hugo Ball’s poetry, or word-music.[13] A theatrical character is a non-existent person whose thoughts are non-existent, but fictional or dramatized real persons and thoughts are still arguably the predominant mediators of cultural ideas and emotions across civilizations. The function of music in the social framing of communication, and especially of fiction (cf. opera) and ritual performance (cf. ceremonies and religious service), is all-important, because the tonal art in itself – including dancing – constitutes a highly structured form of activity without any finality besides itself and without any referential meaning and however, capable of generating immediate experiences of intense (and extensive) intersubjective affect: nonsense as beauty. The intersubjectivity of beauty – corresponding to the effect of art that (the unmusical) Emmanuel Kant perceives and discusses in his Third Critique – as expressions not-yet based on shared meaning, is socially existential. Music makes it possible to emotionally share the present without having to share thoughts about things, or ‘values’. “Not-yet”, because meaning shortly follows this experience and profits from the affective state created; it makes new meaning possible in social contexts that otherwise would be intellectually closed. It thus offers a sort of promise of meaning, precisely because meaning follows when it has evacuated the intellectual waste that fills most social situations. Social life cannot be built on agreement, but nevertheless must presuppose shared affective experiences of some sort, in order to attune our minds. Those affective experiences are available in the multifarious forms of nonsense – shared metaphors, metonymies, sayings, jokes, puns, poems, songs, tunes, dances, artful settings and behaviors of all kinds – that characterize any society, whether archaic or modern. The expressions of non-thought in un-truth are therefore pervasive in social life.

As our examples show, nonsense is an important and ubiquitous aspect of semiotic reality; but it is volatile, ephemeral, experienced in flashes, fortunate moments, temporal openings mostly of short duration. Spatial arts – sculpture, painting, architecture – are to be viewed in glimpses, not by unending contemplation. Nonsense can only be endured in small portions, but these moments may be essential to our communicative human minds.


Per Aage Brandt

Per Aage Brandt, b. 1944 in Buenos Aires. Ph.D. from the Univ. of Copenhagen 1971, Thèse d’Etat in Semio-Linguistics from the Sorbonne, Paris, 1987: La Charpente modale du sens (publ. 1992). Founder of The Center for Dynamic Semiotics, Univ. of Aarhus (1993). Research Fellow at CASBS, Stanford, CA (2001-2002). Professor of Cognitive Science and Language & Literature at Case Western Reserve Univ., Cleveland, OH (2005 – 2011).  Adj. Professor at CWRU (2011 – present). Grand Prix de Philosophie de l’Académie Française 2002. Founder of the journal Cognitive Semiotics (2007 – ). Spaces, Domains, and meaning, 2004. Morphologies of Meaning, 1995. Dynamique du sens, 1994. Works in linguistics, semiotics, poetics, cognitive semantics, aesthetics, and philosophy.

Current works can be found on ResearchGate and Academia.edu.

pab18@mac.com   and       pab18@case.edu



[1] In terms of formal logic, this disposition of the Ethics (1677) does not really work as an axiomatic system. But the axiomatic presentation is chosen in order to appear coherent with his theological epistemology.

[2] If signs consist of expression and content, we may say that content consists of either thought, which is referential, or imagery, which is not referential. Nonsense contains imagery, or unreal representations.

[3] Pre-reflexive emotional contents are cognitive schemas, mental diagrams that sketch out without words what the cognizant subject is making of a situation : attitudes, fears, hopes, contempts, disgusts, desires…

[4] Laughter is an enigmatic phenomenon. My hypothesis is that it is a human biological and cognitive reaction to a characteristic of the human mind that remains to be systematically studied, namely the fragility or instability of individual intelligence – the fact that intelligent mental behavior of the individual shows an oscillation between IQ highs and lows, which makes the flow of thinking extremely uneven. When an individual intellectual performance hits a low extreme, it makes us laugh.

[5] This semio-cognitive process is described in detail in Line Brandt & P. Aa. Brandt, “Making sense of a blend”. Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics, Vol. 3, 2005.

[6] Both respect and disrespect are transculturally signified by gestures of looking-away-from-target.

[7] Brandt, P. Aa., Spaces, Domains, and Meaning, 2004.

[8] The poem is one of Carroll’s four contributions to the collection presented by Josephine Dodge Daskam, The Best Nonsense Verses, 2007 (www.Gutenberg). In the same volume, the Nonsense Verses of Edward Lear include limerick stanzas like the following:  There was an old man of Hong Kong,/Who never did anything wrong;/He lay on his back, with his head in a sack,/That innocuous old man of Hong Kong. – One wonders exactly how this poem qualifies as nonsense. It is totally self-explanatory. The person described is of course in an improbable position, if it is stationary. So it is probably false that there was such a person; that alone would make the statement of the poem analytically nonsensical. The poem even offers an edifying point: if you are active, you may sometimes do things wrong, but that’s better than being passive.

[9] I quote from the net site Poetry, the Imagination, the Creative Life [http://thevirtualworld.blogspot.fr/2005/04/oulipo-poems-s7.html].

[10] In fact, the following example is a counterexample. It offers a modernized variation of the
Shakespearean arguments, one by one, and preserves the global thinking expressed in the source sonnet.

[11] A nice example of S+7 can be found in Raymond Queneau, Exercices de style, 1947, and in the
translations, especially if the latter follow the constitutive rule, which is not always the case!

[12] The magic formular simsalabim seems to be a deformed version of the Arabic performative
expression: "bi-smi llahi r-rahmani r-rahim", In the name of God the merciful and charitable.

[13] Kurt Schwitters’ grandiose Ursonate (1922 – 1932) may be an even better example of extended word-
music along these lines.




Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.