Talking Nonce Sense

I was reading this evening about different names for various types of words (a man’s got to relax somehow). Some I’ve mentioned here before, like ideophones. But I came across one term I’d never heard of before: a nonce word.

A nonce word is one which is created for a single occasion, usually to solve a problem of communication. The term has nothing to do with nonsense, but comes from the archaic term for the nonce, meaning for the moment.

Most nonce words aren’t very well known, because they were just used once. But some are a bit more famous. Remember when I wrote about bouba and kiki!?

Robert Heinlein’s classic sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians. He’s quite fond of using the verb to grok, which literally means to drink, but can be used to mean to know intimately, to understand, or to love, among various other vaguely similar meanings. The word grew in popularity among fans of the novel, and spread so much that it came to be featured in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But that’s not nearly as famous as to chortle. This word started life as a nonce word in Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky” (full of both nonce words and nonsense words), probably intended as a combination of to chuckle and to snort.

Another notable nonce word is quark, created by James Joyce for his 1939 work Finnegans Wake (yes, there’s no apostrophe!). The word was later adopted by physicist Murray Gell-Mann to name a particle proposed by him in 1964.

Speaking of Finnegans Wake, I bought it recently. And I’m going to read it. Promise. Well, I’m probably not going to read it from start to finish. It’s not like it’s got a coherent narrative, or anything approaching comprehensible prose. But I’ll read it. Well, I’ll dip into it here and there, now and then. It’s got to be experienced in some way, at least!

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