Sunday, April 15, 2012

The No Nonsense of Nonsense

This post is a follow-up to an earlier post "Jabberwocky & Dr. Seuss:  A Lesson in Nonsense" (although one can be read at the exclusion of the other).

Playing with nonsense is important to language learning, critical thinking and creativity...aside from just being so much fun!

Whether playing with nonsense words (as in Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky) or nonsense ideas, places, and things (Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat or Dr. Seuss' The Lorax), the author invites the reader to:
  • play with language - in terms of phonics and vocabulary;
  • play with language - in terms of allegory, and metaphor;
  • play with concepts - considering greater depth, inference, detail, fun and surprises as they pop up in the reading journey; and
  • play with reading making it more active and interactive as author and reader play with words, sounds, and sentence structure.

Shakespeare, Carroll, Lear, Dr. Seuss are just a few authors well-known for their integrating nonsense words, verse, and ideas in their writing.

Shakespeare created his 'words' combining alliteration, onomatopoeia, and word play as he took two unrelated words and combined them to express some often-foul-filled image such as "boil-brained" to create a new, scathing curse or slam [Here is a link to create your own slams from Shakespeare's word lexicon].

Lewis Carroll used nonsense words to play with the sound and structure of language. He also integrated sound, onomatopoeia, illusion and alliteration and, in the case of Jabberwocky, was more inventive in terms of words /word choices (go to: for complete text):

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

Yet, even with Carroll's truly nonsensical words, given their use and placement in the sentence, the reader can create an image and story. And upon closer examination, many of the nonsensical words are quite similar to ones we might substitute.  "Gyre" alludes to gyrate, and "mimsy" is close to whimsy, and whether intentional or not, the reader has fun actively constructing his or her own sense of meaning and intent.

Edward Lear, a third English author also integrated nonsense words with nonsense ideas (an owl marrying a pussycat, and the important thing is a ring?)  in his works, often in limericks and songs that he asserted were "nonsense, pure and absolute." His best known songs are probably The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and "The Daddy-Long-Legs and the Fly." [For more, visit Edward Lear Home Page. ]

Owl and the Pussy-Cat Verse II
Pussy said to the Owl, 'You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married!too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose, 
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

The Daddy Long-legs and the Fly - Verse 1
Once Mr. Daddy Long-legs,
Dressed in brown and gray,
Walked about upon the sands
Upon a summer's day;
And there among the pebbles,
When the wind was rather cold,
He met with Mr. Floppy Fly,
Add dressed in blue and gold.
And as it was too soon to dine,
They drank some Periwinkle-wine,
And played an hour or two, or more,
At battlecock and shuttledore.

Dr. Seuss' nonsense words were both like Shakespeare's in combining two unrelated words to create a third, and like Lear's and Carroll's in their play on sound, language, and sentence structure (as seen in Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please go Now):

 Marvin K. Mooney will you please go now!...
You can go On a Zike-Bike 
If you like....
You can go in Crunk-Car 
If you wish...
You might like going in a Zumble Zay...
You can go by bumble-boat...or jet
I don't care how you go.  Just get!

[For those of you who love political satire, here's a link to Dr. Seuss' play with political satire - as he sent a copy of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! text to columnist Art Buchwald in July, 1974, with Marvin K. Mooney crossed out and Richard K. Nixon plugged in "Richard M. Nixon Will You Please Go Now!"]

"NONSENSE" in these instances in not nonsense at all - it is, in fact WORD-PLAY and we should be encouraging this with our kids as they learn to read, write, create, and express themselves. 

Lanaguage: Playing with nonsense words in rhyme, as Dr. Seuss does, allows young readers and language learners to:
  • play with long and short vowel sounds;
  • play with consonants, and consonant blends;
  • play and experiment with sentence structure (using this along with mapping is integral for verbal and written expression)
  • play with vocabualry, alliteration, onomatopoeia (Do you like the "piano tuna" ...create your own with your child!)

Critical thinking: Dr. Seuss, Edward Lear, nursery rhymes and fables all encourage children and readers in general to:
  • compare and contrast to distinguish the 'real-life' from the fantastical fantasy. 
  • infer - gaining greater understanding and expertise with metaphor, allegory, double/multiple meanings;
  • brainstorm and  imagine our natural world not just for what it is, but for what it could be or might be.
  • create - seeing and reading famous works about nonsensical characters, animals, and places encourages young writers to create their own worlds, to learn to exaggerate, to create and to express humor and metaphor. [Like this greeting "WHISK"ing you a Happy Valentine's Day!...make your own!]
But the most important thing, is that this kind of word play is fun, it is engaging, it creates multiple memory paths and it is incredibly interactive.  So have fun with nonsense.  Read some of the masters' works and create your own.  

In closing - here is a ditty my daughter wrote when she was young - her take on "Oowey Goowey":

The original
Oowey Goowey was a worm,
A gooey worm was he.
He sat upon the railroad tracks
The train he did not see....

OOOOweyyy Gooweey!!!

My daughter's version:

OOwey goowey was a slug
He was slimy and fat
He crawled upon the railroad tracks...
Chugga, chugga SPLATT!

Please leave some of your fun, nonsensical ideas in the comments so we can all laugh and enjoy!


  1. Great blog! New follower from Creative Mondays.

  2. What a wonderful post ~ Wow! ~ Thanks for linking up to Magical Monday Meme ~ thanks, namaste, ^_^

  3. A great posting! A lot of info and very educational.


  4. Good read! I'm a new follower from the Monday hop! Hope you stop by and say hi! - Brooke

  5. We also love Shel Silverstein's poetry. My boys think the nonsense in those poems is fun and interesting. They like to play with rhyming words.

  6. I feel like I need to write a book report or give you an apple. Thank you teacher.

    we have our own language... nonsense words for certain things or we call things by different names but we know what we are talking about. Okra is oprah. Asparagus is Okra. Cauliflower is rabbit brains. we wrap stuff with ceramic crap, we like white crap not the red and green crap. Taking out the trash is having sex. Going fishing is code for going the restroom. it all makes for interesting conversations.

  7. I'm always creating new words. The key, I suppose, is knowing the real words first, so the puns, et al, work better

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

    1. I walked through the rickety, crickety up- and- down alleys of old and mystery laden times long ago. The past was heavily present in my dizzily whickery mind. I am a craxaly English speakery person, for I am a foreignery woman of Dutchilike originery. Sorry too many mistakies.
      Nice to right without a dictionary.

  8. I love Shel Silverstein and his world of words. My boys learned many of his poems by heart.
    "I can not go to school today" was one of their favorites.

  9. Your posts are always very interesting. Nonsense is such fun. So many different nonsense words we invented in childhood are a permanent part of our family vocabulary. Carver, ABC Wednesday Team

  10. I love nonsense too! Thanks for this. Makes me smile.

  11. It's so much fun to do this with kids in the classroom! Those who are "naturally" bright have so much fun joining in as anyone can do it.

    abcw team

  12. Wow - love all the authors you mentioned! I'm hooked! Now following from the Tiggerific Tuesday blog hop!

  13. I like your daughter's version! Word play is fun, and I had no idea it encouraged learning this much! Thank you for this enlightening post!

  14. I am on Facebook, first students of 35 years ago find me. Now, curry ESOL students, age 10 find me. I chat with them.

    I asked my Tongan girl student:
    What does your mum do?
    What kind,?
    my daughter is one too.
    how many kinds are they? The new machine type.What about your daughter? exprsso?
    Ann sorry, my mum says, Barista!!!!

  15. Now, curry ESOL, sorry, not curry but current.

    You can tell I eat a lot of curry.

    The funny thing about the barista joke is I have 4 in my family who are lawyers. 2 brothers, 1 niece and one daughter.

    Make me a coffee please, i tell my daughter.

  16. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me
    sitting in the garden eating worms, yum yum
    Long, slim, slimy ones
    Short fat furry ones,
    Oh how thery tickles when they squirm, yum, yum.

    Oh Meryl, you went much more in depth about nonsensical language than I did. Good for you....

  17. Nonsense makes the world a happier place :)
    Thanks for linking up with my WW!


  18. The fact that I don't understand those words (I'm also amazed I can still read them :D) makes it so much fun. Such value in nonsense. Quite a talent in your daughter's version. Love it!

  19. We love Dr. Seuss, it's a fun way to learn how to pronounce words that aren't really words. My teacher friends hate it, they say it has no educational enrichment and is a waste of time. To them I say lighten up and go have a plate full of green eggs and ham!

    Thanks for linking up, it's always nice meeting new people!

  20. love that "whisk"ing way of greetings.

    Nursing to Nuclear Medicine
    Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

  21. Interesting post no doubt.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Swing by and link-up with
    BloggerBroadcast ww LINKY

  22. Sometimes one even sees inspired nonsense on a license plate. I saw a bald man driving a Volkawagon Rabbit. His license plate said "My One Hare."

  23. Stopping by from BHTYD! New follower via GFC :) Have a great weekend!

  24. Beautiful!

    My Ruby Tuesday post, come and visit when you can.

  25. Playing with language is such fun!! Great examples.