What Are Nonsense Words?

dr seuss - nonsense words
There's a Wocket in My Pocket by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel). Geisel's books for children are characterized by a large vocabulary of nonsense words. (Random House, 1974)

A nonsense word is a string of letters that may resemble a conventional word but does not appear in any standard dictionary. A nonsense word is a type of neologism, usually created for comic effect. Also called a pseudoword.

In The Life of Language (2012), Sol Steinmetz and Barbara Ann Kipfer observe that a nonsense word "may not have a precise meaning, or any meaning for that matter. It is coined to create a particular effect, and if that effect works well, the nonsense word becomes a permanent fixture in the language, like [Lewis Carroll's] chortle and frabjous." 

Nonsense words are sometimes used by linguists to illustrate grammatical principles that operate even when there's no semantic indication of the word's function. 

 

Examples and Observations

  • "On the top of the Crumpetty Tree

    The Quangle Wangle sat,
    But his face you could not see,
    On account of his Beaver Hat.
    For his Hat was a hundred and two feet wide,
    With ribbons and bibbons on every side
    And bells, and buttons, and loops, and lace,
    So that nobody ever could see the face
    Of the Quangle Wangle Quee."
    (Edward Lear, "The Quangle Wangle's Hat," 1877)

     

  • From Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"
    - "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe."
    (Lewis Carroll, "Jabberwocky." Through the Looking-Glass, 1871)

    - "A number of words originally coined or used as nonsense words have taken on specific meanings in subsequent use. Renowned among such words is jabberwocky, used by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass as the title of a nonsense poem about a fantastic monster called a jabberwock. A meaningless nonsense word itself, jabberwocky appropriately enough became a generic term for meaningless speech or writing."
    (The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, 1991)

    - "['Jabberwocky'] is famous for consisting of nonsense words mixed in with normal English words. What makes the poem so vivid and effective in many respects is the ability of the author to evoke images based on the grammatical knowledge of the native or highly proficient non-native speaker."
    (Andrea DeCapua, Grammar for Teachers. Springer, 2008) 

     
  • A Sampling of Dr. Seuss's Nonsense Words
    - "How I like to box! So, every day, I buy a gox. In yellow socks I box my gox."
    (Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, 1960) 

    - "This thing is a Thneed.
    A Thneed's a FineSomethingThatAllPeopleNeed!
    Its a shirt. It's a sock. It's a glove. It's a hat.
    But it has other uses. Yes, far beyond that."
    (Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, 1971)

    - "Sometimes I have the feeling there’s a zlock behind the clock.
    And that zelf up on that shelf! I have talked to him myself.
    That’s the kind of house I live in. There’s a nink in the sink.
    And a zamp in the lamp. And they’re rather nice . . . I think."
    (Dr. Seuss, There's a Wocket in My Pocket, 1974)

     
  • Which Nonsense Words Make Us Laugh?
    "[A new] study, led by a team from the department of psychology at the University of Alberta, explored the theory that some nonsense words are inherently funnier than others–in part because they are simply less expected. The team used a computer program to generate thousands of random nonsense words and then asked almost 1,000 students to rate them for 'funniness.' . . .

    "The team found that some words were indeed funnier than others. Some nonsense words, such as blablesoc, were consistently rated by the students as funny while others, such as exthe, were consistently rated as unfunny. . . .

    "Among the funniest nonsense words thrown up by the test were subvick, quingel, flingam,  and probble. Among the least funny were tatinse, retsits, and tessina."
    (Jamie Dowrd, "It’s All a Lot of Flingam: Why Nonsense Words Make Us Laugh." The Guardian [UK], November 29, 2015)

     
  • Sarcastic Expressions
    "[T]here is a phonological process in Yiddish-influenced dialects of English that creates expressions of sarcasm by rhyming with a nonsense word whose onset is shm-: 'Oedipus-Shmedipus!' Just so you love your mother!'"
    (Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language. Oxford University Press, 2002)

     
  • Quark
    "It was [Murray] Gell-Mann who introduced the word quark, after a nonsense word in James Joyce's novel, Finnegan's Wake. Since in the quark theory of matter, the proton is made up of three quarks, the quotation from Joyce, 'Three quarks for Muster Mark!' is very appropriate and Gell-Mann's name has stuck."
    (Tony Hey and Patrick Walters, The New Quantum Universe. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

     
  • Nonsense Words as Placeholders
    "Nonsense words are a hugely useful feature of speech. They help us out when we're searching for a word and don't want to stop ourselves in mid-flow. They're a lifeline in cases where we don't know what to call something, or have forgotten its name. And they're available when we feel that something is not worth a precise mention or we want to be deliberately vague. . . .

    "The curious forms giggombob, jiggembob, and kickumbob all appear in the early-17th century--usually in plays--but seem to have fallen out of use a century later. They were probably overtaken by forms based on thing. Thingum and thingam are both recorded in the 17th century, especially in American English . . .."
    (David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words. Profile Books, 2011)