In his introduction to The Chatto Book of Nonsense, Hugh Haughton (1988) comments that “nonsense is a bit of a problem.” Haughton is alluding to a set of semantic and literary “difficulties” that have surrounded “nonsense” since the term came into common usage in the seventeenth century. At first the word was used mostly in its literal sense, meaning that which makes no sense, or that which is useless, but a new meaning emerged over the next two hundred years, referring to a particular literary phenomenon. The interactions between these senses of the word are at the heart of some of the difficulties we face with the term “nonsense.”

What today we classify as literary nonsense has an ancestral connection to medieval carnivalesque traditions—material that Mikhail Bakhtin (1968) examines in Rabelais and His World. Bakhtin describes a genre of “absurd compositions” that revel in “linguistic freedom,” illogical sequences, and …

This essay may be found on page 165 of the printed volume.

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