Beginning the Year with Nonsense I
Bill Long 12/22/07
The Intellectual Value of Nonsense Mastery
It all started innocently enough. I was just poring through the Oxford English Dictionary one evening in the "ba's," and I began with words I knew. I started with baragouin, denoting language so altered in sound or sense as to become unintelligible (I have written on the word here). I smiled as I looked at some of the obscure words, priding myself on all the things I knew. Barathrum....easy. Barathea...yep, I knew that too--some kind of fine-textured cloth (picture is here). Maybe one day I will go into a clothing store and ask them for "something in pure wool barathea." That is the way I "apply" my words. I have no idea if I like or could afford barathea, but I would buy it just to make sure I know the word. I did this, for example, when in a restaurant with a friend (the Heathman in Portland). Drinks were served. I noted that they had a caipirinha--a Brazilian drink. I had no idea if I would like it (and I don't remember the taste), but I gamely ordered it, so that I would never misspell it. Then, I noted Baraita...all you have to know is the history of Judaism in Late Antiquity, and the word is trivially simple. So, I was thinking that this was going to be a breeze. I figuratively patted myself on the back. Indeed, I thought, I might be close to reaching one of my life's goals--to know all the words.
Coming Upon Trouble...
Until...I came across baralipton, and then I was plunged back into the muck of ignorance, mistake and scrambling to learn and express things that must have been crystal clear at one time to people but which I didn't know. I read the definition of baralipton, and I was no closer to knowing what it meant. Let me give it to you to see if you know it:
"A term constructed to represent by its first three vowels, etc. the first indirect mood of the first figure of syllogisms, in which the two premisses are universal affirmatives, and the conclusion a particular affirmative."
Now do you know what means? I think I knew everything in the definition except "indirect mood" and "first figure" and "universal affirmative" and "particular affirmative." Since I disagree with the approach to learning by many professors in most modern universities, who think that knowledge has to be communicated very fast and that the goal is to cover a field, I had the good sense to stop and say to myself, 'I need to try to understand this.'
So, I began my search. I noted that Pascal, that 17th century French mathematical and theological genius who didn't make it out of his 30s, mentions the word in his book on the Art of Persuasion. He says:
"I make no doubt therefore that these rules, being the true ones, are simple, artless, and natural, as in fact they are. It is not Barbara and Baralipton that constitute reasoning. The mind must not be forced..."
I knew Pascal's withering scorn and rapier-quick wit, expressed in his Provincial Letters, so I assumed that this sentence using baralipton must also be a criticism of a system of thinking. Indeed, it was a criticism of the regnant system of logic at the time, in which the words "barbara" and "baralipton" were used as mnemonics to help students put together syllogisms. But barbara, in this context, and baralipton are nonsense words, constructed simply to help students, and logicians in general, categorize certain kinds of statements.
Thus, I discovered that if I was going to be useful to myself I had to unpack the classical system of logic which dominated in the West for 2000 years in order to understand how pnemonic devices helped in the mastery of syllogisms. I thought it ironic that nonsense was the system invented to help fix logic in our minds for 2000 years, but, knowing as I do some of the ironies implicit in the human condition, I didn't really expect anything different. So, I realized I needed to probe deeply into the history of nonsense in order to make sense of logic's history.
On Other Nonsense
But before I get to this exposition, my mind was filled with other nonsense verses or lines which have played a role in our common life. The two that came most readily to mind were Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky" and Gilbert & Sullivan's cutesy song, in Pirates of Penzance, "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General." And then I said to myself, "I need to memorize these two other pieces of nonsense again (I had done both of them several years ago), so that the notion of nonsense wouldn't just be an intellectual conception with me but would be stitched to my soul." It would also prepare me for mastering the nonsense mnemonic including barbara and baralipton. I began to see, in fact, that if I was going to have a sense of inner utility in my life, whether or not anyone out there cared, I had to devote considerable attention to nonsense.
With that background, then, let's try to understand what baralipton means. I might, I confess, introduce other nonsense thoughts along the way. That, I think is the only way to proceed.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long