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The accretion of meaning

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Noam Chomsky once wrote “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as an example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but nonsensical. However, my daughter Sarah and I were discussing this earlier today, and each of us managed to generate meanings for this phrase.

Sarah:

  • Colorless: Uninspiring to the lumpen proletariat.
  • Green: Pertaining to improving the environment.
  • Sleep: Ignored by mainstream words and actions.
  • Furiously: Angering the idea's proponents.

In other words, uninspiring ideas for improving the environment are ignored by the mainstream, to the fury of their proponents.

Paul:

  • Colorless: Pertaining to transparency, as in window glass and also as in transparent transistors.
  • Sleep: Residing in an idle state, as in idle CPUs.
  • Furiously: Consuming excessive quantities of electrical power.

In other words, if you fail to specify CONFIG_NO_HZ=n when building the Linux kernel for a computer constructed of transparent transistors fabbed onto a pane of glass that controls that pane of glass, this colorless green idea will sleep furiously.

In both cases, the key element is the recently added meaning for the word “green”: As the word “green” has accreted a meaning, so has the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

However, it turns out that Sarah's and my line of thought has been anticipated here, here, and here, and most probably elsewhere as well.

But that is OK. It turns out that Chomsky himself was also anticipated by Lucien Tesnière, the game cadavre exquis, and possibly also Bertrand Russell. Furthermore, a poet managed to accrete meaning onto Russell's “Quadruplicity drinks procrastination,” as can be seen here. The poet had originally intended to accrete meaning onto Chomsky's sentence, but, finding that others had beat him to it, turned to Russell's sentence instead.

The fact is that thinking up a new-to-you idea can be just as much fun as thinking up a new-to-the-human-race idea. Perhaps there really is nothing new under the sun. Even if there is something new under the sun, the human race is not the only thing under the sun! ;-)

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