It has never occurred to me that the word "nonsense" can be a polite one, until I watch the British TV show Downton Abbey. I.e., to me, the word "nonsense" always associates with negative connotations, e.g., "I knew it...What a nonsense they made.", "Nonsense, that's a sheer lie." or, "Er... ignore me, it was rubbish, nonsense."

However, in the "Downton Abbey" TV show of early 20th century British life, it can be quite a polite one, e.g.:

  • ~ We must have out-stayed your hospitality.
  • ~ Nonsense. You're always welcome.

or at least it can be used in normal conversation:

  • ~ If I make it across the finishing line at all it's a miracle, as far as I'm concerned.
  • ~ Nonsense.

However, I never heard people talking like that these days.

Has its usage been changed?

To reply "Sorry to bother you" with "Nonsense", is it still appropriate nowadays, or it is only appropriate for his lordship or her ladyship to say so?

  • Thanks everyone who answered. I've corrected the time to be "early 20th century", and I'll wait until after two weeks to accept the most-voted one as the answer. – xpt Nov 11 '18 at 5:03

Downton Abbey is set in the early 20th century, not the 18th! (Did you see the cars, etc? Have you got to the Great War yet?)

While it can be rude, impolite or disrespectful to say to someone "You are talking nonsense", much depends on the context. Uttered as a single word, "nonsense", simply contradicts what has just been said to the speaker. The intention can be polite, or otherwise.

Person A: I am lazy and stupid.
Person B: Nonsense! You are hard-working and clever. (polite/positive)

Person A: I have disturbed you.
Person B: Nonsense! I am glad to see you. Have a cup of tea. (polite/positive)

Person A: My son has no faults.
Person B: Nonsense! He is vain, lazy and greedy. (rude/negative)

There are no class restrictions in the use of "nonsense", although some may see it as slightly old-fashioned.

Foreign viewers of "Downton Abbey" should realise that the series is highly fictionalised and, in particular, not representative of Britain today.

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  • On a tangent here, the words "bullshit"(for the US) and "Rubbish"(For the British) could easily be substituted. – cecil merrel aka bringrainfire Nov 10 '18 at 20:02

It is a bit 1930s posh.

You can't respond to "Sorry to bother you" with "nonsense" because that is saying that "You are not sorry" (which would be rude) On the other hand, you can respond to "I am such a nuisance" with "nonsense" because that means "You are not a nuisance" (which is polite).

So when someone makes a "self-depreciating" statement, you can gently contradict them with "nonsense!"

Downton Abbey is set between 1912 and 1925. It is set in the early twentieth century, not the 18th.

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  • I say "nonsense" like that and I am not from the 1930s. I don't count myself as 'posh', although I am definitely not a chav. – Michael Harvey Nov 10 '18 at 14:50
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    Nonsense, it's no bother at all seems perfectly natural to me and not at all rude. It's the same thing as Don't be silly, it's no bother at all. – Jason Bassford Nov 10 '18 at 16:57
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    Because "Sorry to bother you" means "I am sorry to bother you". If you reply "Nonsense!" you mean "You are not sorry to bother me". You use "nonsense!" to contradict a humble statement, not to contradict an apology – James K Nov 10 '18 at 17:04

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