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Q From Richard Lathom: You used nonce in one of your mailings: ‘transient or nonce compounds are created in books and newspapers’. Where does this come from?

A I wince now at the infelicity of that phrase. It’s an uncommon word outside dictionary making. It usually turns up in the fossil phrase “for the nonce”, meaning temporarily.

It’s recorded right back into medieval times but was originally created by mistake. It was at first then anes, meaning for the one purpose or occasion, where anes is a variant form of one and then is a defunct form of the. But people misunderstood where the break between words came, and turned then anes into the nanes (said, I think, as though it was spelt nanse). Eventually this evolved into the nonce. (This isn’t the only word known to have been transformed in this way; for example there’s newt, which was at first an ewt, and nickname, which started life as an eke name.)

The use of nonce in the sense in which I employed it seems to have begun with the compilers of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, the entry under nonce in the Second Edition cites the editors themselves: “nonce-word, the term used in this Dictionary to describe a word which is apparently used only for the nonce”. It’s mainly a term of trade among lexicographers and linguists and turns up also in phrases like nonce compound, nonce borrowing and nonce formation.

There’s almost certainly no connection by the way, with the British criminals’ slang use of the word for a sexual offender, whose origin is uncertain, though it may be connected with nancy.

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Page created 25 Sep 1999