For the Nonce.

I wrote about the word nonce back in 2007, but then I was focusing on the term nonce word, which as it turns out was coined by James Murray especially for use in the OED. This post is about the more common expression for the nonce, from which (as January First-of-May pointed out here) I once mistakenly extrapolated a noun meaning ‘current occasion, time being.’ There is, of course, no such noun, and I will quote the OED entry (updated December 2003) to remind myself of the phrase’s tangled origins:

Etymology: Variant (with metanalysis: see N n. [From the beginning of the Middle English period, the coexistence of two forms of the indefinite article (an before vowels and a before consonants) often led to metanalysis]) of early Middle English anes (in the phrases to þan anes, for þen anes), alteration (with adverbial suffix -s: see -s suffix¹ [the frequent coexistence of the two forms of the same adverb, one with and the other without s, led to the addition of s to many adverbs as a sign of their function]) of ane (in e.g. to þan ane) < Old English anum (in e.g. to þam anum for that one thing). Compare:
c1175 (▸OE) Homily: Hist. Holy Rood-tree (Bodl. 343) (1894) 4 He hæfde an fet to ðam anum [OE Kansas Y 103 to þan anon] iwroht.
c1225 (▸?c1200) St. Juliana (Bodl.) 679 Ase wunsum as þah hit were a wlech beað iwlaht for þen anes in for te beaðien.
c1275 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1978) 8637 Comen to þan anes to fæchen þa stanes.
c1275 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1978) l. 10731 Childriche..lette him fusen biforen al þas londes folc..mid spæren and mid græte waȝen to þan ane icoren.
c1300 St. Brendan (Laud) 455 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 232 Þis holie Man þe luddere song for þes ones [a1325 Corpus Cambr. for þe none].
a1400 (▸a1325) Chron. Robert of Gloucester (Trin. Cambr.) (1887) 5795 Þan ones [c1325 Calig. He adde uor þe nones tueye suerdes bi is syde].

The word is thus not a form (with metanalysis) of the genitive of one adj., n., and pron., nor of once adv.: its spelling in the Ormulum [All forr þe naness], for example, corresponds to the form in that text of the genitive of one (which is aness) but not to that of the adverb once (which is æness).

I also wasn’t aware of the earlier meanings “For the particular purpose; on purpose; expressly” (e.g., Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 i. ii. 178 I haue cases of Buckrom for the nonce, to immaske our noted outward garments) and poetic “Verily, indeed” (e.g., J. G. Horne Lan’wart Loon 22 An’, for the nanes, he was a reiver). There were also phrases with the nones, in the nonce, of the nonce, to the nonce, on the nonce, and at the very nonce, all Obsolete. The earliest citation for the linguistic use is:

1913 N.E.D. at Too adv. 6 a Forming a (nonce) sb. phr.

And I particularly like this one:

1993 E. S. Raymond New Hacker’s Dict. (ed. 2) 76 The bogon has become the type case for a whole bestiary of nonce particle names.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I suppose it’s too much to hope that “bogon” will be traceable etymologically back to Middle English? There does appear to have been a fellow named “Bogon de Knovill” floating around somewhere near the English-Welsh border in the times of King Edward I.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s usually found in English in a form borrowed from the Old French nominative: Bogues. (Bogon is the oblique case, of course.)

    The term derives from the name of Bogues li Maus, a notorious Plantagenet used-cart salesman.

  3. The OED does not yet have bogon, but they do have bogosity, which (to my surprise) goes back to the 19th century:

    1893 N.-Y. Times 26 Feb. 18/2 I found it [sc. Bogus Ghostland] absolutely and entirely bogus, insomuch that its bogosity was surprising and suggestive in the extreme.
    1963 I. Fleming On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1964) ii. 21 He had stoically accepted the hammered copper warming pans, brass cooking utensils and other antique bogosities that cluttered the walls of the entrance hall.
    2010 Amer. Spectator Online (Nexis) 1 Apr. Eventually he discovered the bogosity of the charges and acknowledged his error.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Cocklecarrot: Are these genuine names?
    A Dwarf: No, m’worship.
    Cocklecarrot: Then what’s your name?
    Dwarf: Bogus, m’ludship.
    Cocklecarrot: No, your real name.
    Dwarf: My real name is Bogus, your excellency.

  5. Surely, as January First-of-May pointed out (or alluded to), “nonce-word” is common enough in the discussion of MSS and the like?

  6. c1175 (▸OE) Homily: Hist. Holy Rood-tree (Bodl. 343) (1894) 4 He hæfde an fet to ðam anum [OE Kansas Y 103 to þan anon] iwroht.

    That caught my eye: Kansas? An Old English manuscript found in *Kansas*? Yes, it was! Via JSTOR: “Two Recently Discovered Leaves from Old English Manuscripts”, Speculum 37:1 (Jan. 1962):

    An important discovery was recently made at the University of Kansas: two leaves from different eleventh-century Old English manuscripts were found used as padding in an undistinguished seventeenth-century binding. One of these leaves is part of an Old English Legend of the Cross of which two other fragments are now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (C.C.C.C. 557); the other is part of an Ælfrician homily — De Uno Confessore — which has now been found to be missing from Bodleian Manuscript Hatton 115.

    And “Two Fragments of an Old English Manuscript in the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge”, Speculum 70:3 (Jul. 1995)

    Working from a photograph the great paleographer and codicologist N. R. Ker attributed the hand of the Kansas fragment to the scribe who also wrote the texts of two bits of the same work found in the library of Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (1559-75) … He concluded, no doubt rightly, that all three are part of one manuscript.

    The Kansas leaf (together with a second leaf of different origin, also containing an Old English text) had been used to strengthen the binding of a copy of the second edition of Barclay his Argenis, translated by Kingsmill Long (London, 1636) (STC 1392.5), a work of no great rarity or distinction. Apparently the binding, too, was of no distinction, described as “plain brown seventeenth-century calf,” with a simple, crudely-worked, blind-tooling design. It gives no hint of its place of origin. The volume’s immediate provenance was a Cambridge bookseller of the 1950s; beyond that it cannot be traced.

    And you can see a beautiful color photograph of the Y103 page provided by the University of Kansas library, with the phrase quoted by the OED right in the middle. What a detective story. It makes me wonder how many *other* thousand-year-old treasures were still lying buried in 1962, and how many of them have since been destroyed, never to be discovered by hero-librarians.

  7. how many of them have since been destroyed
    Dust in the wind…

  8. Hans: I do beg your pardon.

    Seriously, I think it has been standard knowledge for a long time that scrap paper for bindings can yield valuable surprises, and people who rebind old books look for them.

    (The oldest thing I ever found inside a binding was a Parisian laundry list from the 1850s.)

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    I wonder whether “bogosity” was in continuous if low-key existence from (at least) 1893 forward or if it was lost and then independently recoined on one or more occasions until it finally stuck?

  10. Ngram Viewer shows it taking off in the 1920s (for certain very low values of “taking off”).

  11. To distinguish it from nonce “kiddy fiddler”, I pronounce this nonce to rhyme with once, dunce and the other with ponce, bonce, response, ensconce. If it were in fact descended from once, this would be one degree less eccentric of me

  12. Trond Engen says

    How do you draw the line between a nonce word and a hapax legomenon when working with texts?

  13. Trond, I think the difference would consist of evidence, or at least assertion, that the word had been invented for the occasion (nonce word) instead of simply being attested in only one place (hapax legomenon).

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