Thursday, January 24th, 2008
Language from the programme
In conversation, this refers to something silly or ridiculous. See the Word Facts below, for examples of its everyday usage.
The more technical definition of this word is 'something which has no meaning'. In the programme, Catherine quotes Noam Chomsky's famous example of a nonsense sentence:
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously
Importantly, nonsense sentences obey the grammar rules of English, unlike gibberish / gobbledygook.
This is a made-up word from Lewis Carroll's poem, Jabberwocky. You can read the poem on the main webcast page.
Word Facts - Nonsense
Download the Nonsense Word Facts mp3 (3.2 MB)
Download the Nonsense Word Facts pdf (45 K)
When we use the word nonsense in everyday conversation, it’s usually in quite a negative way – to show that we think something isn’t right. For example, if we disagreed with somebody, we might say:
I think that’s nonsense!
This is a very strong word. Another strong word, which the British use in the same way, is the word rubbish:
We can use the verb to talk with these words.
Don’t talk rubbish!
These words are very strong and can be quite rude, but we can make them even stronger by using the adjectives total, complete and absolute.
I’m sick of hearing this! It’s total rubbish!
What he said at the time was absolute nonsense, as he admitted himself later.
I wouldn’t read that article. It’s complete nonsense, I think.
We can also say a load of nonsense.
I wouldn’t watch read that article. It’s a load of nonsense, I think.
If we want a formal word to describe something unreasonable, we can use the adjective nonsensical.
‘When you think about it carefully, it’s a nonsensical argument’.
So that’s talking nonsense or rubbish, absolute nonsense, total nonsense, complete nonsense, a load of nonsense and nonsensical.
There are two words that have a similar meaning to nonsense. They are gibberish and gobbledygook*. In the field of linguistics, a nonsense sentence like Colourless green ideas sleep furiously , follows grammatical rules but doesn’t have a meaning – but gibberish and gobbledygook don’t follow grammatical rules – they aren’t examples of language at all.
You were talking in your sleep last night, but I couldn’t understand what you were saying. It was just gibberish.
Something’s wrong with my phone. All I can hear is gobbledygook.
In conversational English, we can use gibberish and gobbledygook like we use nonsense.
Oh stop talking gibberish!
But more often, we use these words to describe something that is expressed very badly. This might be because it’s too technical or because it’s written in a poor style.
I can’t understand a word of this manual. It’s just gobbledygook!
We have another word which describes something that is difficult to understand because it’s poorly expressed. This is mumbo-jumbo.
Trust me, you won’t understand the contract. We’ll have to get a lawyer to translate all the legal mumbo-jumbo.
An adjective which describes something that is very clear and easy to understand is no-nonsense. We don’t use this word much in conversation, but you often see it in the titles of books.
I bought this book the other day, ‘The no-nonsense guide to downloading music’. It’s really interesting.
So that’s gibberish, gobbledygook, mumbo-jumbo and no-nonsense.
* Note these alternative spellings: gobbledygook, gobbledegook