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A nonce word (also called an occasionalism) is a lexeme created for a single occasion to solve an immediate problem of communication.[1][2]:132

Some nonce words may acquire a fixed meaning inferred from context and use, possibly even becoming an established part of the language, at which point they stop being nonce words, while others are essentially meaningless and disposable and are useful for exactly that reason. For instance in child language testing,[citation needed] examples of such words include "wug" and "blicket".[3]



The term is used because such a word is created "for the nonce".[2]:455 All nonce words are also neologisms.[4] The term nonce word was apparently the creation of James Murray, the influential editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.[citation needed]

In child development studiesEdit

Nonce words are sometimes used to study the development of language in children because they allow researchers to test how children treat words of which they have no prior knowledge. This permits inferences about the default assumptions children make about new word meanings, syntactic structure, etc. "Wug" is among the earliest known nonce words used in language learning studies, and is best known for its use in Jean Berko's "Wug test", in which children were presented with a novel object, called a wug, and then shown multiple instances of the object and asked to complete a sentence that elicits a plural form—e.g., "This is a wug. Now there are two of them. There are two...?" The use of the plural form "wugs" by the child suggests that they have applied a plural rule to the form, and that this knowledge is not specific to prior experience with the word but applies to all nouns, whether familiar or novel.

Other examplesEdit

A poem by Seamus Heaney entitled "Nonce Words" is included in his collection District and Circle.

Other examples of nonce words include:

  • Fluddle, a word reported by David Crystal which he understood to mean a water spillage between a puddle and a flood, invented by the speaker because no suitable word existed. Crystal speculated in 1995 that it might enter the English language if it proved popular.[2]
  • Bouba and kiki, used to demonstrate a connection between the sound of words and their meaning.
  • Grok – coined by Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, and now almost mainstreamed.
  • The poem Jabberwocky is full of nonce words, with only one, chortle, becoming a word in common use.
  • The novel Finnegans Wake used the work quark as a nonce word. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann adopted this word as the name of a subatomic particle.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Nonce Word". Cambridge Dictionaries Online. 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language. Ed. David Crystal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0521401798
  3. ^ Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2001, p. 388
  4. ^ Malmkjaer, Kirsten. (Ed.) (2006) The Linguistics Encyclopedia. eBook edition. London & New York: Routledge, p. 601. ISBN 0-203-43286-X