Nonsense words

Fozzbonkling nonsense words that excite your simploncs

All languages evolve across the ages, with new words being added every year and others falling out of use. But at any one time, every language will feature a finite vocabulary that all speakers can understand or look up in a dictionary.

Then there are nonsense words! Those deliberately contrived groups of syllables that you won’t find in the dictionary and which have no prescribed meaning. The best examples of these are completely meaningless and yet manage to make sense. They are delights for the ears that inspire emotional responses and express what no existing word ever could.

Nonsense words!

Nonsense words boast the feel-good factor in spades. They are funny, sensual and imaginative in equal measure. Our world would be all the poorer without such fozzbonkling vocabulary to stimulate our weary simploncs! These are the words that don’t just sound good; they feel amazing as you enunciate them. They prod at your little grey cells and they make you smile.

Nonsense words in children’s literature

Literary nonsense is a unique genre that sees authors manipulate language to magic up words and sentences that defy common sense and yet really work within the context of the piece. The fact that the poems and stories remain logical and comprehensible demonstrates the somewhat arbitrary nature of language. This type of linguistic manipulation is a special skill. Literary nonsense can be impressively complex and certainly memorable.

Roald Dahl

If you are searching for the finest nonsense words, look no further than children’s literature. Roald Dahl was particularly skilled in the art of nonsense and his imaginative words always seem so incredibly appropriate. His wonderful character the BFG spoke “Gobblefunk” which is far more interesting and appropriate than English. Dahl has also given us “cattlepiddler” and “whoopsy-splunkers”, words which are guaranteed to trip off your tongue with a liberal dose of glee. 

Lewis Carroll

Perhaps the most famous and enduringly popular example of nonsense verse was penned by the brilliant Lewis Carroll. Jabberwocky“Jabberwocky” is a poem which featured in the novel Through the Looking Glass:

 

‘ Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

 

Bandersnatch‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!’…

This mind-boggling assemblage of coinages and blended syllables continues to inspire youngsters. It is the poem that gave us the useful words “chortle” and “galumph”. Both of these made-up words have since passed into common usage and are now recognised as real words. Carroll created such perfect expressions that they stuck. How else could you now so precisely describe the sight of an elephant in motion than by using the single word galumphing? 

Edward Lear

There can be few English speaking children who haven’t been treated to a reading of Edward Lear’s iconic poem “The owl and the Pussycat”. This crazy and yet somehow understandable work lives long in the memory and has given us the term “runcible spoon” which, like Lewis Carroll’s “chortle”, is now to be found in many dictionaries.

Nonsense wordsLear also penned “The Dong with the Luminous Nose”. When you read this poem, it quickly becomes hard to imagine its central character as anything other than a dong, even though no such thing exists.

Imaginary words in adult literature

Made-up words are not confined to children’s literature. Many of our greatest authors have been masters of the art of nonsense, and none have proved better at crafting new vocabulary than Charles Dickens. Many of his neologisms have entered common usage to the extent that few English speakers would pause to contemplate their origins. Where would we be without “flummox”, “boredom” and “the creeps”?

We can’t leave the subject of literary nonsense without mentioning James Joyce. The Irish author was accomplished in the art of fashioning new words. His greatest triumph was perhaps the amazing Nonsense words“Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk”. This incredible example of linguistic gymnastics is supposed to sound like thunder. If you can get your tongue around it, it probably does!

Made-up words and dyslexia

Nonsensical language and imaginary words are usually literary devices, but they are used in the real world for practical purposes. Teachers and researchers utilise them in reading assessments as they can help to reveal whether any reading difficulties stem from issues with phonetic decoding. Those who suffer from dyslexia can struggle with phonetic decoding which is the art of deducing the correct pronunciation of a group of letters.

Dyslexic children

The ability of children to master symbols early on in life is vital. A dyslexic child experiences difficulty with blending sounds to read words (letter–sound correspondence), and may not know how to pronounce sounds in a made-up word. Nonsense word fluency is sometimes used to measure a child’s ability to decode unrecognised words.

 

Testing for brain damage

NonsenseAs we have established, the meaning of nonsense words can be inferred from the context in which they appear. This provides a fascinating insight into the way we can process language. Even when presented with a word that we have never seen before, we can make sense of it when it forms part of a sentence or extended text. For this reason, you may have inferred that the word fozzbonkling in the title of this article probably means something like mind-boggling.

Traumatic brain injuries can result in a loss of cognition and linguistic capabilities including the ability to attribute meaning to nonsense words. Nonsense word reading, therefore, comes in handy when testing patients for brain damage.

Thickle-trackle at its best!

Nonsense words are great fun, aren’t they? Do you have literary favourites, or have you made up a few words yourself? Do send us your favourite thickle-trackle as we would be woobobbled to discover amazing new words that fill a few gillioties in the English language.

If you enjoyed reading about nonsense words, you might also like our article on Portmanteau words.

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