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Nonce Word

A nonce word is a made-up word, or lexeme, created by a writer in poetry or fiction. 

Nonce words are neologisms, meaning they are new words that have yet to be accepted into mainstream use. The word comes from the Middle English phrase “for the once,” or for the moment/special occasion. It’s created for a specific purpose that must be inferred from the context and will likely never be encountered by the reader in any other context again. 

Nonce pronunciation: Naw-nss Wer-d

Nonce Word - Meaning and Examples


Definition and Explanation 

Nonce words are made-up words that authors coin for a specific purpose in their writing. They are sometimes used comedically, as within children’s poetry and fiction, while other ties they might be meant entirely seriously, such as in science fiction or fantasy novel. These words might stay contained to the stories they originated in, or, if the short story/novel/poem becomes popular, enter into the mainstream. For instance, Shakespeare created numerous words that were once neologisms and have since entered into common use. These include “cold-blood” and “amazement.” 


Why Do Writers Use Nonce Words? 

Writers use nonce words when they need a new word to describe something in their writing. This might be because they can’t settle on a word that already exists or because nothing means exactly what they want it to. Nonce words are also used to entertain, such as in the words of Dr. Seuss. He often created new words that rhymed with common words; this added vividness to the worlds he described while also making the reader feel more like they’d been transported there. Sometimes, nonce words are used for the sounds they create, such as in Jabberwocky.’ The words in this particular poem are a pleasure to read and hear but have no clear meaning. It’s possible to infer the meaning of some, but not all of them. 


Examples of Nonce Words in Poetry 

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

‘Jabberwocky’ is perhaps the best-known English-language poem to make sure to nonce words. Here are a few lines from the poem as an example: 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: 

All mimsy were the borogoves, 

And the mome raths outgrabe. 

At first glance, it looks as though the poem is written in an entirely different language, which almost is considering how many nonce words Carroll employed. As mentioned above, it’s possible to infer meaning for some of these words, while for others, it’s almost impossible to get a complete picture. Some words from this poem, like “chortle” and “galumph,” have entered into common use. 

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear 

Lear is one of the best-loved authors of children’s poetry to ever live. In his poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,’ readers can find a few examples of nonce words. Take a look at these lines and the word “runcible,” 

So they took it away, and were married next day 

By the Turkey who lives on the hill. 

They dined on mince, and slices of quince, 

Which they ate with a runcible spoon; 

Here, Lear coins the word “runcible” in order to refer to something that’s between a fork and a spoon, usually referred to as a “spork” nowadays. The word fits so seamlessly into the poem and sounds very much like a real word that it works quite well here. 


Don’t Bump the Glump by Shel Silverstein

Don’t Bump the Glump is Silverstein’s first book of poems. In it, readers can find numerous poems based on nonsense words. For example, take a look at these lines from The Wild Cherote.’ 

I’d like a coat of Wild Cherote. 

It’s warm and fleecy as can be. 

But note: What if the Wild Cherote

Would like a coat of Me? 

Here, Silverstein creates a character called a “Wild Cherote.” The only information one has, aside from illustrations, is that it’s possible to create a coat out of its hair, wool, or whatever other furry texture it has. Other wonderful poems in the collection include The Bibley,’ ‘Oops,’ and ‘The Skinny Zippity.’ 


Examples of Nonce Words in Literature 

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein 

In Heinlein’s groundbreaking, best-selling science fiction novel, he coined a well-used nonce word— “grok.” The word is used throughout the novel to mean something close to “comprehend” or “understand.” It comes from Mars, where the main character, a human raised by Martians, learned to use it all the time. When he returns to earth, he uses “grok” on a regular basis, forcing all the other characters and the reader to intuit his meaning. By the end of the novel, it’s quite clear, and all the characters who have befriended him are using it regularly as well. Today, the word is used by some computer programmers. 


Ulysses by James Joyce

Within Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, readers can find a number of invented words. These include “ringroundabout,” used to describe completely surrounding something, “poppysmic,” the sound of someone smacking their lips, and “mrkgnao,”a version of “meow.” Here is an example of the latter being used in the novel:

Mrkgnao! the cat said loudly. She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. 

In this excerpt, readers should also notice the use of “shameclosing” and “milkwhite,” two invented compound words, another type of nonce word. 


Nonce Word Synonyms 

Occasionalism, nonsense word, protologism, sniglet, pseudoword, nonce compound.


Related Literary Terms 

  • Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral or ungraspable.
  • Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.
  • Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
  • Figurative Language: figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
  • Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.


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