Tuesday, 9 January 2007


These are words used only ‘for the nonce’, i.e. on one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer's works. The term was coined in the nineteenth century by James Murray especially for use in the OED (which in those days was still called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society).

Generally speaking, they are not found in dictionaries until they are considered to have come into general use. Thus Carroll’s brillig remains a nonce-word but his mimsy (unhappy) has become accepted, though rarely used.

Anybody can think up a word that didn’t exist before and use it a few times to impress their friends, but this is a rather sad thing to do; nonce-words can be amusing but are not really very interesting unless you streponitate* them.

A paperback published this week by the Oxford University Press, written by lexicographer Eric McKean and called Totally Weird and Wonderful Words, brings together two previous volumes listing unusual words and even includes a guide on how readers can construct their own words using Latin or Greek roots. (From the book's title, I guess it is aimed at the American market.)

Here are some of them; these may be obscure or obsolete but none of them are invented nonce-words and all are in the dictionary (at least, in the OED):

bablatrice - a female babbler
chaterestre - a talkative woman
erinaceous - like a hedgehog; a person with prickly manners
deuterogamist - someone who marries a second time
dictioneer - person who takes it upon themselves to criticise diction or writing style
finnimbrun - a knick-knack or trinket
flagitation - asking or demanding with passion; begging
funambulist - a tightrope walker; a person who thinks quickly on their feet
heterarchy - government by strangers or foreigners, literally "rule of an alien"
hibernacle - winter home of hibernating animal; a sunshine retreat for people
leighster - a female liar
loranthaceous - related to mistletoe family; kisses given or received under the mistletoe
lordswike - a person who deceives their boss; a traitor
nullo - someone who has undergone an elective amputation for the purposes of body modification, usually of a toe
rhinarium - the hairless and moist nose of some mammals
snollygoster - a dishonest politician, especially a shrewd or calculating one
solfeggist - someone who sings notes using do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti
woofits - an unwell feeling, especially a headache; a moody depression; a hangover.

* This word was never used anywhere until now, and will probably never be seen again.

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