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The accepted answer to this question quoted Chomsky's (1955) famous “sentence” Colorless green ideas sleep furiously and an earlier example from Tesnière (1940s), which translates to English as The vertebral silence indisposes the licit sail. I understand that the point of these examples is to illustrate a distinction between grammar and semantics, which seems quite an elementary idea in linguistics. This set me wondering whether earlier authors had considered this topic, and whether there is a settled term for such constructions.

Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky was grammatically well-formed, but the nonsense was in the individual words rather than in the composition of meaningful words. Psychedelic poetry might generate some examples, but (as poetry often does) tends to be careless of the grammatical rules of prose; and the author would presumably claim the poem to have a “poetic” meaning. One might expect Sokal's (1996) hoax article to be a rich source, but this is not the case according to Steven Weinberg's analysis of it. So these are not good examples. Anyway, I am looking for an established term to describe a nonsensical construction that is valid in both the grammar and in the individual words, along with early examples from the linguistic or philosophical literature.

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  • Conventionally, "word salad" is not grammatical, though it is a slang expression. You're looking for a word that describes it, not a phrase, right? – user6726 Jul 17 at 18:42
  • Is this an example? It's all grammatical but it's got a definite salady feeling. – jlawler Jul 17 at 19:04
  • @user6726 : I don't expect a single word for such a specific idea. The sequencing of two nouns to form a noun phrase (e.g. art form) is standard in English; however, I have no objection to adjectives (e.g. as in verbal salad) either. I don't agree that word salad is properly described as a slang expression. – – John Bentin Jul 17 at 19:35
  • @jlawler : Your link doesn't work as supposed. But I was able to glean from it that you were referring to the Chomskybot program, and derivatives such as the Postmodernism Generator. These generate whole paragraphs of impressive-looking, and grammatically perfect, but subtly meaningless verbiage. All great stuff—but I wasn't able to find a term for the sort of sentence that they generate. Also, they are relatively modern (1990s). – John Bentin Jul 18 at 10:49
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Semantic anomaly is the word you're looking for:

Incoherent sentences that are not surface conjunctions of contradictory sentences do not so blatantly generate contradictory entailments. Indeed, their incoherence is often such that we are hard pressed to see that they have any entailments at all. Linguists have spoken of anomaly in cases like those illustrated in (64).
(64)
a. The square root of Milly's desk drinks humanity.
b. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
...

(G. Chiercha & S. McConnell-Ginet, 1990, Meaning and Grammar).

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  • Thank you. This citation is spot-on. An internet search for this term led me also to anomalous sentence However, my search didn't suggest that either term had much currency or focus on the sought meaning. – John Bentin Jul 17 at 20:27

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