Is there an adjective that describes something that is intentionally useless or meaningless (as a joke or prank)?

For example, an application that doesn't do anything when you click on its buttons, or a very long joke that, upon finishing reading it, turns out to be not a joke but just an open-ended (deliberately) meaningless story.

For the application example, I can precede the word application with prank as an adjective but in the case of the joke, prank joke doesn't sound idiomatic.

  • 2
    My grandfather, an old-world carpenter, used to build do-nothing gizmos, which he'd hand to his wife (my grandma) with no explanation, just to enjoy the baffled look on her face as she'd crank it one way, then another, to no meaningful effect (the chuck, or whatever the piece that slides in the channels/runnels, simply moves back and forth or up and down as you turn he handle; it never "does" anything). – Dan Bron Apr 1 '17 at 15:21
  • @DanBron Hilarious! :) – Mohammad Sanei Apr 1 '17 at 15:24
  • If you had wanted this in the context of a project, mock-up and non-functional prototype might work. They don't work well for (finalised) prank machines, though. – Lawrence Apr 1 '17 at 15:42
  • 3
    For a building you could use Folly, and this could be used in other contexts too. – Christopher Apr 1 '17 at 18:38
  • @DanBron sounds like a useless machine – marcellothearcane Apr 2 '17 at 16:28

There's a term for the joke. From Wikipedia:

In its original sense, a shaggy dog story or yarn is an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax or a pointless punchline.

Trammeling on someone's expectations

This prank goes back before iPhones. My grandfather, an old-world carpenter, used to build do-nothing gizmos:

a photo of a "Do Nothing Plus" which makes it easy to see its workings and uselessness

There are a number of different variations, but they all share the "do nothing" characteristic:

Kuntz Carpentry catalog listing 3 various "do nothing" devices source: Kuntz Carpentry catalog of wooden puzzles

Of course, the true purpose of the device was to amuse himself, when he'd hand the device to his wife (my grandma) with no explanation, just to enjoy the baffled look on her face as she'd crank it one way, then the other, to no meaningful effect (the shuttle, or whatever the piece that slides in the channels is called, simply moves back and forth or up and down as you turn he handle; it never "does" anything).

Now, it turns out these devices originally did have a practical purpose, before they were converted into prank toys.

They were called the "Trammel of Archimedes", and were used to draw ellipses:

A real life trammel of Archimedes, produced ca. 1900, and now part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

That Wikipedia article¹ notes:

Wooden versions of the trammel of Archimedes have been produced also as toys or novelty items, and sold under the name of Kentucky do-nothings, nothing grinders or do nothing machines. In these toys the drafting instrument is replaced by a crank handle, and the position of the sliding shuttles is usually fixed.

Elliptical answer

Going further, the Wikipedia article also notes there's a broader category of device which includes these novelty items, named Useless Machines.

The canonical example they give is "the box that closes itself", which can be seen in action in this YouTube video:

"Useless Machine" with a single switch, that when thrown, simply actives a mechanical finger which toggles the switch back

A more sophisticated example is the electro-mechanical Do Nothing Machine on display at the Museum of Craftsmanship, in Carlsbad, CA, demonstrated in this YouTube video.

The docent in the video relates an anecdote that the inventor had a guest over who saw the device, and on studying the machine for a while, quipped:

You know, there's a lot going on here, with no results, you ought to have called it "Congress"


¹ Which also includes animated gifs of the device in action, which I can't embed here due to technical limitations.

  • 1
    What do you mean "useless"?? I played with gizmos like that for hours, back when I was a kid. – Hot Licks Apr 1 '17 at 20:30
  • @HotLicks Did you? As soon as I grokked it was a prank (i.e. after 2 cranks), I ditched it. How was it fun? – Dan Bron Apr 1 '17 at 20:38
  • It was fascinating to observe the pieces passing by each other and never colliding. I was trying to get my mind around it, I suppose. (I don't mean that I would sit for 2 hours looking at a single device, but could easily spend 5-10 minutes on one, and might play with 2-3 different ones in a session, then come back a few days later and do it again.) – Hot Licks Apr 1 '17 at 20:53
  • @HotLicks Huh. I guess I have a vague memory of being impressed by non-collision. Though I only had access to one example. – Dan Bron Apr 1 '17 at 20:57

Anti humor (or anti joke) -- Wikipedia

Anti-humor is a type of indirect humor that involves the joke-teller delivering something which is intentionally not funny, or lacking in intrinsic meaning. The practice relies on the expectation on the part of the audience of something humorous, and when this does not happen, the irony itself is of comedic value. Anti-humor is also the basis of various types of pranks and hoaxes.

The humor of such jokes is based on the surprise factor of absence of an expected joke or of a punch line in a narration which is set up as a joke. This kind of anticlimax is similar to that of the shaggy dog story. In fact, some researchers see the "shaggy dog story" as a type of anti-joke.

See also from TV Tropes

"Roses are red
My name is Dave
This poem makes no sense
Microwave"

  • 1
    +1 because the TV Tropes poem made me laugh. I am stealing it. Just try to stop me. – Dan Bron Apr 1 '17 at 16:19
  • What did the farmer say when he lost his tractor? "Where's my tractor?"—this is a family favourite. – user128216 Apr 2 '17 at 2:09
  • Can this be used to describe the "do-nothing" application as well? Also, is there a corresponding adjective? – Mohammad Sanei Apr 2 '17 at 7:24

If you want a strictly one word answer anticlimax or anticlimactic would apply well to your jokes. Although anticlimaxes can have some meaning, they have less than seems appropriate to the situation. When referring to a joke, punchline, or humor, the idea that the joke has no meaning is strongly implied, if not explicitly stated by this adjective.

Specifically for a (part of a) computer application that does not do anything useful, you may want to check Easter eggs.

Wikipedia:

In computer software, Easter eggs are secret responses that occur as a result of an undocumented set of commands. The results can vary from a simple printed message or image, to a page of programmer credits or a small video game hidden inside an otherwise serious piece of software.

  • +1 I've seen so many of those eggs in video games and movies. – NVZ Apr 1 '17 at 16:24

protected by tchrist Apr 2 '17 at 21:10

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