Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nonsense Words

The most famous use of nonsense words in the English language is from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”


Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more;    Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never;
        Then sigh not so,
        But let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into. Hey nonny, nonny.


The words “nonny nonny” have no meaning, but are probably meant to remind the listener of the word nonsense.


Another nonsense example comes from Lewis Carroll in his poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”


"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."


This time, the nonsense comes from recognizable words arranged into sentences that have improbable meanings.


In both cases, the intent is to influence the behavior of the listener.  In the case of “hey nonny nonny” the idea is to get women to give up on men ever being sensible.


In the case of the Walrus and the Carpenter, the characters are using the syntax of sensibility while saying things they should know are not true.


I think fear lies at the root of both these nonsense examples.  Shakespeare’s ditty focuses on the Fear that men can’t be constant to their women or their careers.  And Lewis Carroll takes the idea a step further – he fears that men can’t be constant to the truth.


The biggest problem with fear is that it makes us feel helpless.


Recently, at a Chinese restaurant.  My fortune cookie read: “Fear is just excitement in need of an attitude adjustment.”


That seems to me to be a piece of true wisdom.


Much of our lives are taken up with actions we perform habitually that have their roots in fear.


We have magical gestures like knocking on wood, or not stepping on a crack. Some people even say “knock on wood.”


We have loyalty oaths for people who hold jobs with the government, as if lying would be impossible for someone who was not loyal.


And we have the ritualistic recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and in meetings.


The Pledge was originally written in 1892 for two purposes:
1) to honor the 400th anniversary of the landing of Columbus on the North American continent.
2) to sell flags. In other words it was an advertising slogan.  It sold 25,000 flags. It was recited at the 400th anniversary celebrations of Columbus landing. And for 6 years, that was the end of it.


Then the US declared war on Spain, and wanting to do something supportive, the New York State legislature decreed that school children would recite the pledge daily.  19 Other states followed suit.


The motive was fear.  It was similar to my neighbor who wears a special shirt during Eagles games because she’s sure they’ll lose if she doesn’t wear it.  We know, realistically, that school children reciting the pledge, or saying “hey nonny nonny” will not affect the outcome of a war.  But nonsense words take root. And people fear giving them up.


These rituals are not harmless. The Pledge has contributed to the destruction of the very things it praises about America.  The Pledge says that this country is Indivisible.  Bellamy was referring to the Civil War which ended only a few decades before he wrote this poem.  But there are other ways to divide America.


The Pledge has been used as a reason to divide students in America’s classrooms. Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden by their religion from saying the pledge.  These students are excluded from the classroom, sometimes forced to stand out in the rain, or attend detention. This is the opposite of Indivisible.


Freedom of Speech includes the right NOT to speak.


As Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson said in 1943, "To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions."


And America is not a land of “liberty and justice for all.”  The Innocence Project has used DNA evidence to free over 250 people from jail, some of whom served over 30 years for crimes they did not commit.  Liberty and Justice for all may be our ideal, but it is not a fact.


The Pledge was made law out of fear and it has not made this country safer or free-er.


As recent episodes of terrorism have shown us, it is individual people who are terrorists – not countries.  Nonsense words will not protect us.  I suggest we say the words we really mean at times and in places where they can be effective.

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