What Are Nonce Words?

Ken Dodd, British comedian
The titilifarious (also spelled tattyfilarious) British comedian Ken Dodd (c. 1970). The Graham Stark Photographic Library/Getty Images

A nonce word (from Middle English "for the once") is a word coined or used for a special occasion. A compound construction made up for a particular occasion is sometimes called a nonce compound. As Thomas Kane notes below, nonce compounds (e.g., "an anti-everything-wrong organization") are usually hyphenated.

Examples and Observations

  • "A nonce word is one coined 'for the nonce'--made up for one occasion and not likely to be encountered again. When Lewis Carroll coined it, frabjous was a nonce word. Neologisms are much the same thing, brand-new words or brand-new meanings for existing words, coined for a specific purpose. Analogy, especially with familiar words or parts of speech, often guides the coiner, and occasionally these words will enter the standard vocabulary." (Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press, 1993)
  • "Sometimes 'nonce-formation' is restricted to linguistically irrelevant, quirky stylistic 'novelties'; sometimes it is seen as fully representative of the system of word-formation defining 'possible words.'" (Pavol Štekauer and Rochelle Lieber, Handbook of Word-Formation. Springer, 2005)

Comic Portmanteau Words

  • "Ken Dodd, a very popular comedian from Liverpool, specialized in the use of words such as titilifarious (a blend of 'titillating' and 'hilarious'?) and plumtuous (a blend of 'plump' and 'sumptuous'?). Such usage may be intended to satirize the 'long words' of pompous sounding 'gobbledygook.'" (Richard Alexander, Aspects of Verbal Humour in English. Gunter Narr Verlag, 1997)
  • Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious
    Mr. Dawes: Well, do you have anything to say, Banks?
    George Banks: Well, sir, they do say that when there's nothing to say, all you can say . . .
    Mr. Dawes: Confound it, Banks! I said, do you have anything to say?
    George Banks: Just one word, sir . . .
    Mr. Dawes: Yes?
    George Banks: Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious!
    Mr. Dawes Sr.: What?
    George Banks: Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious! Mary Poppins was right, it's extraordinary!
    (Dick Van Dyke and David Tomlinson in Mary Poppins, 1964)
  • "Vegan, too, has its offshoot: a freegan is an anticonsumerist who eats only what others throw away. Unlike a dumpster diver, a freegan (hard g) limits his scrounging to edibles. I believe this term is too close to euphemisms for copulation to be more than a nonce word." (William Safire, "Vegan." The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2005)

​​Horace Walpole's Nonce Words

  • "English bristles with nonce words--words invented on the spur of the moment, meant to be used only once. Horace Walpole--the author of the first Gothic novel, and one of the 18th century's most dedicated letter-writers--was fond of coining new words when the mood struck him. He didn't invent the insult nincompoop, but he does get credit for the derived form nincompoophood, a word that could stand to be reintroduced. When he wanted to refer to 'greenness' and 'blueness,' he made up greenth and blueth. When he wanted a word meaning 'intermediatness,' he coined betweenity. And while most of these disappeared as quickly as they were invented, a few of his coinages have stuck: Walpole was fond of a fairy tale about three princes from Sri Linka, once known as Serendip, who made a series of unexpected discoveries, so he made up a word to describe the phenomenon. More than two centuries later we still use serendipity for lucky chances." (Jack W. Lynch, The Lexicographer's Dilemma. Walker, 2009)

Nonce Compounds

  • "[P]robably most neologisms are novel compound words. Barbara Tuchman describes the most remarkable quality of a particular statesman as his 'you-be-damnedness'; and a traveler in Sicily complains of the crude duckboards placed for tourists around an excavation of beautiful mosaics:
    It was a groan-making thing to do and only an archeologist could have thought of it. (Lawrence Durrell)
    Such constructions are called nonce compounds, which are distinct from the conventional compounds we all use, like teenager or schoolboy. Nonce compounds are usually hyphenated." (Thomas S. Kane, The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing. Berkley Books, 2000)
  • "I doubt whether even the breathless, gosh-gee-whiz-can-all-this-be-happening-to-me TV-celebrity-author himself could cap this shlock classic with another." (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1970)
  • "The success of a regularly produced nonce compound depends on its conceptual appeal to the speech community and on the importance of the object designated by the compound." (Florian Coulmas, "Underdeterminacy and Plausibility in Word-Formation." Meaning, Use, and Interpretation of Language, ed. by Rainer Bäuerle et al. Walter de Gruyer, 1983)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Nonce Words?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/nonce-word-term-1691432. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). What Are Nonce Words? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/nonce-word-term-1691432 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Nonce Words?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/nonce-word-term-1691432 (accessed March 30, 2023).