A Hierarchy of Nonsense, By John Kropf

[I receive from John Kropf, and publish.]

For a couple of semesters in college I worked at the on-campus student coffee house, The Bandersnatch, named after the creature in Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsensical poem, Jabberwocky. When you work inside a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem, you start to take nonsense seriously. While toasting bagels and brewing coffee, and listening to the songs playing on the house stereo, I created what I classified as a nonsense hierarchy.

Understandable Nonsense.“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” is a Frankenstein monster of a sentence composed by the MIT Professor of Linguistics, Noam Chomsky to test his theories of language and the best example I can think of as nonsense where the words are all understandable but whose meaning is nonsensical. This category is not a lot of fun, mostly because it seems to be the playground for academics to make linguistic arguments.

The pop songs I heard were much more entertaining nonsense. John Lennon, a life-long lover of nonsense words, filled some of The Beatles most memorable songs with Understandable Nonsense like Come Together:

He wear no shoeshine
He got toe jam football
He’s got monkey finger
He shoot Coca-Cola

Mixed-Up Nonsense. Second level of nonsense is a mix of the understandable and made up. Carroll’s 1855 poem Jabberwocky is what I think of — writing that is grammatically correct and partially understandable but filled with lots of made-up, fun words.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

I don’t know what a slithy tove is but the sound of the words along send me in a direction where I conjure up an image of something amphibian-like.

Carroll’s contemporary, Edward Lear, wrote a whole book of nonsense including poems, short stories, songs, drawings, alphabets, and even botanical drawings.

Over a century later, this was fertile ground for writers of pop-songs.  The 1960’s vocal group, The Crystals, had a Top Ten Billboard it with The Da Doo Ron Ron:

I knew what he was doing when he caught my eye
Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron
He looked so quiet but my oh my
Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron

In 1967, John Lennon was working with three different song ideas when the result turned out to be one of the most memorable songs from The Magical Mystery Tour album with Mixed-Up Nonsense of I am the Walrus

They are the egg men
I am the walrus
Goo goo g’joob, goo goo goo g’joob
Goo goo g’joob, goo goo goo g’joob, goo goo

The torch of mixed-up nonsense was picked up in the late 1970s by The Police with their Billboard Top Ten hit, De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da. The lyrics are credited to Sting who said he was interested in the success of the Crystals Da Ron Ron and Do Wah Diddy by Manfred Man. He was self-aware enough to expressly call out the nonsense of the words:

De do do do, de da da da
Is all I want to say to you
De do do do, de da da da
They’re meaningless and all that’s true

As early as The Police’s first album, Sting had been playing with mixed nonsense in the track Masako Tango, from their first album:
Key wo wa di com la day wa da
Co wa da zu ma pu wa all day
See po wa ta na po ba ba
Zoe ka mo wa I’ve been sleepin’ all day

Total Nonsense.This is the top of the nonsense pyramid where there are no recognizable words and, while it might feel grammatically correct, it’s not like a foreign language where you can find a translation because there are no translations. A prime example is the Dada poet, Hugo Ball, who in 1916 wrote a poem, Karawane, consisting of nonsensical words. Some commentators called it a “sound poem.” Here’s the opening verse:

Gadji beri bimba clandridi
Lauli lonni cadori gadjam
A bim beri glassala glandride
E glassala tuffm I zimbra

The Talking Heads revived the poem in their 1979 song I Zimbra, from their album Fear of Music. Ball received a writing credit for the song on the track listing. And if you want to say you have seen everything on the internet, you can watch a YouTube video of Marie Osmond reciting Karawane.

On the final Beatles album to be recorded, Abbey Road, John Lennon took his fondness for wordplay into pure nonsense with the song Sun King and the lyrics:

Quando para mucho mi amore de felice corazón
Mundo paparazzi mi amore chicka ferdy parasol
Cuesto obrigado tanta mucho que canite carousel

The lyrics sound like a romance language just out of reach but were in fact totally made-up. Leaving John Lennon at the top of the nonsense hierarchy would likely please him.

There’s a lot more nonsense out there for another day but for now I’ve got to Gimble in the wabe.

This entry was posted in Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Nonsense Lyrics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Hierarchy of Nonsense, By John Kropf

  1. Peter Byrne says:

    “I don’t know what a slithy tove is […].” Well, why didn’t he find out from Humpty Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking-glass’?

    “‘[S]lithy’ means “lithe and slimy”. “[T]oves are something like badgers–they’re something like lizards–and they’re something like corkscrews.”

    Before getting into airhead pop groups, I wish he would have attempted to distinguish between the nonsense of Edward Lear and that of Lewis Carroll. That’s the least we could expect from someone who talks of hierarchies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.