I knew that nonce was (like adder, apron, and orange) an example of metanalysis, for the nonce being reanalyzed from early Middle English for þen ane(s) ‘for the one (time).’ What I didn’t know was that the term nonce word, so familiar to me from linguistics classes (it means a word that occurs only once, or once in a corpus), was (as the OED puts it) “[one of a number of terms coined by James Murray especially for use in the N.E.D.].” Citations:

1884 N.E.D. Fasc. 1, p. x, Words apparently employed only for the nonce, are, when inserted in the Dictionary, marked nonce-wd. 1884 N.E.D. s.v. Agreemony, A nonce-word, probably intended to suggest acrimony. 1927 Englische Studien Nov. 99 If an alternative explanation presents itself, topographical nonce-words ought to be avoided. 1990 B. BRYSON Mother Tongue vi. 91 Germans, suffering a similar problem with zwei and drei, introduced the nonce word zwo, for two, to deal with such misunderstandings.

(Note: N.E.D. stands for New English Dictionary, the original name of the OED.) I already discussed self-quoting at the OED; here they get to quote themselves for the first two citations!
I will add that I think Bryson misunderstands the term (as he misunderstands so much about language), and it’s regrettable they chose to use that citation.


  1. Bryson books have about one error per page. I don’t even give them away; when I get one, I throw it in the trash to keep the blundermemes [a nonce word] out of other people’s minds.

  2. Who will be the first to mention in this context hapax legomena, dis legomena, etc.? And newlogisms.

  3. Well, you’ve mentioned them, but nobody’s used them yet. “Nonce word” is shorter and clearer.

  4. Well, you’ve mentioned them,…
    Quite so. Self-referentially, note. And newlogisms exhibits another species of self-reference.

  5. A bit like a sonnet about a sonnet, perhaps.
    One last couplet dost though now exact?
    Well here it is, all tight and meaning-packed.

    And of course one thinks of Douglas Hofstadter’s beautifully involuted self-referentialities. Now, if only we could catch him thinking about them…

  6. …now that we speak of punkish Pushkin.
    [Pun (kis), angolmagyarul: “little push”.]

  7. Oh… I meet this word often in the technical documentation. Nonce values are used in authentication schemes, for example in RFC2617: “nonce: A server-specified data string which should be uniquely generated each time a 401 response is made.”
    And I have to confess that until now I was pretty sure that this was a contraction of “nonsence”, that is that the nonce value was a piece of meaningless data :).
    Thanks for the enlightenment!

  8. “nonce: A server-specified data string which should be uniquely generated each time a 401 response is made.”
    Nice to see a comment from a once-nerd, Dmitri. (And I mean that in the nicest possible way.)

  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that ‘hapax…’ and ‘nonce word’ have different connotations: the latter has the implication of something slightly jovial and coined for a rhetorical occasion, but never used again, whereas a hapax can be a normal-looking word that happens only to crop up once, eg., in the Bible.

  10. Bryson’s writings on language infuriate me, but apparently the general public is okay with slipshod writing and total fabrications as long as it’s fun to read. Several years ago I wrote an Amazon review for The Mother Tongue, listing my complaints and it’s now a spotlight review, with 198 out of 234 people finding it useful. I find it horrifying, however, that consequently 36 people think pointing out errors in a book meant to educate is “unhelpful”. With people like Bryson sellings hundreds of thousands of books, and real linguists languishing in obscurity–and misquoted when they are actually occasionaly interviewed–I’m now understanding why so many people I’ve encountered in the academy have given up dealing with the public.

  11. Conrad: No, they’re simply used in different circles. Classicists talk about a hapax, linguists about a nonce word (or formation or construction). No joviality, I fear.

  12. Are all Bryson’s books that bad, or is it mainly linguistic incompetence? I recently got “A Short History Of Nearly Everything,” and it would be disappointing to want to avoid it because I didn’t want to be misinformed that badly.

  13. Most of his writings are travelogues, and they are a sad case of Ugly Americanism in action. I’ve never read anything by Bryson that was commendable.

  14. But Christopher, in your review you said The Lost Continent is “a book I’d recommend to any foreigner wanting to learn about rural America”. So you must have downgraded your opinion in the meantime. I would never take Bryson very seriously but I liked his book about the Appalachian trail.
    And unfortunately your review is also tainted by some errors – afaik it is not, for example, a myth that Inuits have a multitude of words for snow – they do. The myth relates to this fact being somehow significant, since English also has a multitude of words for snow and can express every concept that can be expressed in Inuit.
    And I would agree with Bryson that Russian does not have a word or expression that is the exact equivalent of “have fun” (or “spass machen”). But neither do Spanish, French or Italian. And English has no word for “Glueck” or “toska” or “arrangiarsi”. Again, the real myth is that this fact is somehow “revealing” of deep cultural secrets when in reality it just reflects the fact that different languages assign ranges of meaning slightly differently across lexical boundaries. So I find your review unfortunately somewhat misleading, which might explain some of the “not helpful” remarks.

  15. parvomagnus says

    Sadly, while all three featured reviews of “The Mother Tongue” savage it, Amazon’s own review’s pretty pathetic. Is there anything easier to fake to a non-specialist audience than “encyclopedic knowledge”? It even ends with this shudderful wonder:
    Bryson frequently takes time to compare the idiosyncratic tongue with other languages. Not only does this give a laugh (one word: Welsh), and always shed considerable light, it also makes the reader feel fortunate to speak English.
    !. Rather, it makes me regret having imbibed this crap at a young, impressionable age.

  16. In British prisons a nonce is a sex offender – unfortunately nothing to do with once only occurrences but apparently an acronym from Not On Normal Communal Exercise.

  17. Germans, suffering a similar problem with zwei and drei, introduced the nonce word zwo, for two, to deal with such misunderstandings.
    Zwo was hardly “introduced”, according to my Duden it is the old feminine for zwei. German distinguished between feminine, neuter and masculine two in the Middle High German period (Icelandic still does), and even when the distinction was lost, zween and zwo survived as stylistically marked (usually poetic) synonyms for zwei.

  18. Lesley, pretty much all acronym explanations for British slang are bogus.

  19. Among sociolinguists studying bilingualism “nonce borrowing/nonce loanword” refers to a borrowing made by bilinguals “on the spur of the moment”, so to speak, actively inserting a word from language A into language B (meaning that the word in question would not be understood by a speaker of language B unacquainted with language A), whereas “(non-nonce) borrowings/loanwords” would refer to terms which entered language B and are known to monolingual B speakers. Hence there is a difference to my mind between a nonce word and a hapax: the latter term refers to one-time textual attestation, which of course says nothing as to whether the word was considered foreign (or quaint/archaic or, conversely, too vulgar to be used) in its day. So textually a nonce borrowing will be a hapax, but a hapax may or may not be a nonce borrowing.

  20. Interesting, Etienne. Different disciplines use the same words differently, and it’s always good to get a window into other uses.
    Lesley: Christopher’s right, acronym explanations are almost always bogus. The OED’s Dec. 2003 entry for nonce ‘A sexual deviant; a person convicted of a sexual offence, esp. child abuse’ has the following etymology:
    [Origin unknown. Perh. related to NANCE n. (see quot. 1984 at main sense), or perh. cf. English regional nonse good-for-nothing fellow, recorded in Eng. Dial. Dict. Suppl. from Lincolnshire.]
    The citation they want you to “see” is:
    1984 Police Rev. 18 May 975/3 Nonce, prison term for a child molester. The very bottom of the prison pecking order, the ‘nonce’ is usually segregated from ordinary prisoners at all times for his own protection. Originally derived from ‘nancy-boy’.

  21. Cue Chris Morris jokes about Nonce Sense.

  22. Yes, nonce and nancy. That connexion came to mind for me, but I gave it little thought. I wonder if ponce jigs into the fitsaw somehow?

  23. Andrew Dunbar says

    afaik it is not, for example, a myth that Inuits have a multitude of words for snow – they do
    It’s some time since I looked for these words but I seem to recall reading somewhere that they actually have only two words. At this moment I can only find these two in Inuktitut: ᐊᐳᑦ (aput), the usual word; and ᒪᐅᔭ (mauja), deep soft snow. (I’m not trying very hard though.) What are some of the other words?

  24. Here is one explanation of why it is just plain wrong to talk about counting words in Eskimoan languages at all:

  25. I won’t defend any of Bryson’s writing on linguistics or science, but A Walk in the Woods is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and since I have hiked several of the same sections of the AT he writes about, I can testify that it’s reasonably accurate.

  26. Yeah, his Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe made me laugh out loud. (I still remember a jibe about “Let’s Go Get Another Guidebook”—so true!) If only he’d stick to writing amusing books about his own experiences, I’d have no problem with him.

  27. Yeah, I don’t see the ‘Ugly American’ thing at all. Notes From a Small Island is an extended love letter to the UK-he did move there for nearly 20 years after all. Most of his gibes are self-directed.

  28. Nonce is also used as a term of art in cryptography to refer to a (usually random) number used only once in a communication, usually to prevent replay attacks.

  29. Nonce, as is used in british prison slang to refer to sex offenders, and in particular paedophiles, is given the derivation of “originally Nancy boy”, by Languagehat, I have been told by police custody officers that prisoners refer to those offenders as nonce, or nonsense case.

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