A fragilistic look at the expialidocious

To my recent and thorough pleasure I purchased Fry’s English Delight, Stephen Fry’s BBC radio show on linguistic peculiarities. The last episode focuses on gibberish. (As anyone who has ever bothered to read my articles knows, I love absurdity, nonsense, gobbledygook and made up words of all kinds to a degree one might call obstressive.) Fry characterizes gibberish as a universal language that anyone can speak and none can understand. And, certainly, who am I to question the moist, pink loveliness that is Stephen Fry? Yet I can’t help but wonder why, if indeed it is as universal as he says, some people are better at it than others. Why do some merely gurgle while others become beamish froods of Unwinese?

Perhaps the question, though, is not how can some be better than others at creating non-words, but rather, why is gibberish entertaining? I suspect the degree of humor derives from how near-meaningfully the speaker approximates accepted language in a contrived or abstract assemblage of phonemes. Hilarity ensues. 

English is well suited to portmanteaus, almost effortlessly so, and a good deal of gibberizing is simply to lantinesquely exquisify a Germanical corpse. Ja? Prefix, root, suffix, not necessarily in that order, but usually. Sometimes an infix, which is an addition to the center of a word. There are many infixes in Greek, but few in English, which I find unfuckinbelievable.

English is essentially an estuary in which the disparate language streams from the Indic source reconvene into a babblefull of hostile fish. To circle the sharks back to the corral reef, let’s compare a few kinds of gibberish:

Type one: sdfhg jpaeoirjgwedfae wrlkjwhefg

Type two: Gihun mibublop huhu wab vurtintink?

Type three: Slinth me, Padre! I’m all aquonk.

One is random letters, or as random as it comes on a QWERTY keyboard (also taking muscle memory into account). Kurt Vonnegut once said, “No one can remember pure nonsense.” I admit I am taking that quote grossly out of context, but I think it’s applicable here, never the less. Two is mostly random, if there is such a thing as mostly random. It shows some inclination toward English word formation without meaning anything. Three is mostly English with a couple frungly words. This sort of gibberish makes your mind stretch over the gaps in context, and it tickles. It’s laffy taffy for the structuralist set. In other words, we don’t quite know what a snark is, save that it looks just like a boojum, and that’s enough. To quote A.A. Milne, “It is all the explanation you are going to get.”

Gibberish is a huge component of children’s literature, Fry points out, because babbling is an important stage in early language development. This need to babble is part of what makes Doctor Seuss so much fun and gives charm to the quaint absurdity of Carl Sandberg’s Rootabaga Stories, just for starters. 

Looking outside of children’s stories, I find that science fiction and fantasy have the largest amount of literary nonsense words. I’m not talking about fictional languages such as Quenya or Klingon, or unusual sounding names, like Barsoom. I’m not saying all made up words are the same. There’s a difference between a character named Aeryn Sun and one called Slartibartfast. In Star Wars (the real movies, not the three crap ones) much of the non-human talk is gibberish. Chewbacca groans, R2D2 beeps and chirps. Jawas, Greedo and Jabba the Hutt all speak pseudo-Englishes.

Doctor Who is another great source of silly names. Bannakaffalatta. Raxicoricofallapatorius. Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe. The Judoon, to whom the Doctor speaks in a nonsense language along the lines of Jo! Do! Wo! Bo! Fo! (This, despite the TARDIS’s powers of translation, I think, less as a continuity error than an opportunity to be silly).

Italo Calvino and Stanislaw Lem, two of my favorite authors, put more than a little absurdity into the character names in Cosmicomics and T-Zero (Calvino) and Mortal Englines and The Cyberiad (Lem). In each, science and science fiction sources inspire fairytales. Calvino takes a scientific concept and renders it as a fable; Lem takes fable story structures and replaces the fairies, princesses, unicorns and whatnot with robots and scientists. Either way, the names are intentionally absurd—Mirox, Gigant, Vliperdius, Qfwfq, Ursula H’x—adding either a pseudoscientific tone to otherwise fable-like characters or a childlike aspect to the unknowable cosmos.

I can’t quite decide whether or not H.P. Lovecraft really used gibberish. At the very least, I think he wasn’t making up words for comic effect. But he did create words and names with the intention of obscuring the subject. What, ultimately, is the difference between Azathoth and a boojum?

Douglas Adams was a master of silly words. Outside of the magnificent ridiculousness of the Hitchhikers’ Guide, he also gave us The Meaning of Liff, a fake dictionary in which he and his collaborator John Lloyd took place names and turned them into new words. In that sense, it’s sort of reverse-gibberish. For example, Henstridge, the name of a civil parish in Somerset, becomes “the dried yellow substance found between the prongs of forks in restaurants.” As they point out, “There are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist. On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.”

I think the desire to look into the “common experiences” they mention “for which no words exist” is precisely the reason children’s literature, speculative fiction and comedy all utilize gibberish words. Because, really, it’s not nonsense but near-sense. It’s taking something real but hard to define and communicating it by amplifying the reader’s connotative assumption, skip-gappy in the leximotor till the stuff goes ding.


When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.

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