green ideas

In 1957, Noam Chomsky coined the sentence ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’, as evidence that syntax was independent of semantics, since the sentence was perfectly grammatical but perfectly meaningless. (But obviously I don’t buy that notion, being a fervent Hallidayan myself.)

Anyhow, as humans are often wont to do, people have tried to give this famous sentence some semblance of meaning. According to Wikipedia, a literary competition was held at Stanford University in 1985, in which the contestants were invited to make Chomsky’s sentence meaningful using not more than 100 words of prose or 14 lines of verse.

I personally like this one, by C M Street:

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

from here

(I wonder why British spelling was used, though!)

Separately, American poet and academic John Hollander published The Night Mirror, a anthology of his poetry, in 1971.  One of the poems in the book is this:

Coiled Alizarine

for Noam Chomsky

Curiously deep, the slumber of crimson thoughts:
While breathless, in stodgy viridian
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

from here

Crimson and veridian! I love those colour words and the imagery they conjure!


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