“Nonce-words,” “For the Nonce,” and “Nonce”

By Maeve Maddox

Cine Cynic posits a question about the word nonce in the expression nonce-word:

Reading about Lewis Carroll, I stumbled upon the concept of nonce words. What surprised me the most is that “nonce” is also slang for paedophile in Brit. How did that come about? Is it related to the allegations about Lewis Carroll?

The word nonce has been kicking around in English since the Middle Ages.

There was a phrase for þe naness (c.1200) which meant “for a special occasion, for a particular purpose.” This phrase was a misunderstanding of an earlier phrase, for þan anes, which meant “for the one.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase “for the nonce” was used from the early 14th century as “an empty filler in metrical composition.”

The phrase “for the nonce” as now used can mean “for the occasion, for the time being, in the meantime.”

Nonce-word was coined in 1884 for the purpose of providing a descriptive label in the N.E.D. (New English Dictionary, original title of the Oxford English Dictionary) by the great editor James Murray. It was used to describe “Words apparently employed only for the nonce.”

The phrase “for the nonce,” meaning “for the occasion,” is used by Claudius as he and Laertes plan to murder Hamlet:

When in your motion you are hot and dry–
As make your bouts more violent to that end–
And that he calls for drink, I’ll have prepared him
A chalice for the nonce, whereon but sipping,
If he by chance escape your venom’d stuck,
Our purpose may hold there.

The expression “for the nonce” is still going strong on the web:

Sticking with Firefox rather than Chrome for the nonce

Tide of Creationism Stemmed for the Nonce

Here’s a factoid to take into account, the wholly different cultural context (for the nonce)

Moss donned a string bikini bottom for the nonce and skated on.

You know how they sometimes ask you, “What’s your biggest fear?” It may not be that clichéd a question, but one still hears this phrase ‘biggest fear’ more than a few times in one’s life. I don’t want your answers, so you can hold your horses for the nonce.

That many of these people appear to be completely bonkers has not prevented them from bringing the feds to a crashing halt for the nonce. (I have no idea how long a nonce is, so don’t ask me.)

The other kind of nonce, “a person convicted of a sexual offense, esp. child abuse,” is a more recent usage.

Various fanciful acronyms have been offered to explain the origin of the slang word nonce. One of the more plausible etymologies connects it to a Lincolnshire dialect word nonse, meaning “good-for-nothing.”

The earliest example in the OED (1971) is spelled nonse and is from a work about prison slang. In the second OED example (1975), the word occurs as the plural nonces. The third example (1984), extracted from Police Review, states that the word nonce was derived from “nancy-boy.”

I rather doubt that the chaps who came up with the slang term knew anything about the allegations against the creator of Alice in Wonderland (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson [1832-1898], aka Lewis Carroll).

The allegations that Dodgson was a pedophile began to surface in academia in the 1930s and 1940s. Dramatist Dennis Potter brought the idea into the mainstream with his 1965 play Alice, and the 1985 screenplay Dreamchild. Several recent biographies of Dodgson have continued to speculate.

The only connection that can be drawn between the word nonce and Lewis Carroll is the fact that Carroll invented several nonce-words. Many nonce-words are “portmanteau words” in which two words are telescoped to create a new word. Most fade into oblivion, but a few, like brunch (breakfast+lunch), and electrocute (electro+the ending of execute) find a lasting place in the language. Two of Carroll’s portmanteau words are: chortle (snort+chuckle), and snark (snake+shark).

You can find an overview of the evolution of the allegations against Dodgson on the Tate Publishing site.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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6 Responses to ““Nonce-words,” “For the Nonce,” and “Nonce””

  • ApK

    “Here’s a factoid to take into account, the wholly different cultural context (for the nonce)”
    That writer should have read the last tip about ‘factoid’! Unless he’s trying to tell us it’s not true….

    By the way, “nonce” is also used as a noun in computer science and cryptography. A nonce is value that is generated for one time use (“for the occasion”) and then not reused, as for encryption key.

  • naomi hamm

    Nonce. How british can that word be, although i have never ever heard of it, or even know what it means. Where did it originate from. the Swedes. the danes, The greeks. Interesting concept this world of word play.

    And the more you think you know, the less you find out you do know.

    What i like to know : why math? Why not grammer and proper english, some science and arts/crafts instead. Hey yo say no to math!

    Oh well a girl can at least try!

  • Peter

    The first time I heard “nonce” in the sense “pædophile” was in a TV miniseries a couple of years ago (a guy in prison was asked if he was “a nonce” — I had to go look it up). The usual meaning of the term in my line of work is for something like a “cookie” on the web — a chunk of random data used to connect two or more queries (usually for authentication in a cryptographic exchange: side A sends a nonce to B, which sends back a hash of the nonce and some data (e.g., a password) known to both A and B; B can compute the same hash and verify that the thing/person purporting to be A really knows the same information, but nobody listening in to the exchange can find out what it is)

  • Will

    One possible explanation of the British use of “nonce” in the sense of
    paedophile that I have come across is that it is an acronym –
    Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise. This being an official prison term in the UK.
    Sex offenders are often segregated from the rest of the prison population for their own protection.

  • ApK

    I’m curious if anyone has seen any evidence that "Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise" is even an 'official' term of any kind. I have not.
    I suspect that, like many purported acronym word origins, this is a “backronym” that someone made up out of hand and posted on the Internet as if they’d read it somewhere. 😉

  • Caylith Creator

    Here is a use of “nonce” that I have wondered about for umpteen years, and maybe someone can explain it to me. During a session with one of my professors, an academic counselor, I told him that I intended to take an “INcomplete” in such-and-such a course. He was angry, telling me that it would be a black mark on my record, to which I replied that I intended to do it just once. At that, he fumed: “Once is nonce!”

    The professor was of Germanic heritage and had an accent, so I thought it may be just an English rendering of some German idiom. But I have always wondered what he really meant, and where the expression came from. I assume he meant “once is one too many.” Any suggestions?

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