Nonce Words: What Are Nonce Words? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on August 2, 2023

No idea what nonce words are? You've come to the right place! This article will teach you everything you need to know about nonce words, including what they are, what they mean, and even how to create your own!

In short:

  • Nonce words are words that a writer makes up for a particular occasion, and the word never gets used again outside that context.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Nonce Words?

Imagine you're writing a blog article, a poem, a novel, or any other piece, really, and you get stuck. You're trying to think of the right word. You know what you're trying to say but can't think of the perfect word. You might even be able to explain it in several words, but that's not what you're looking for; you want just a single word to describe it. And then you realize... it doesn't exist!

What's a writer to do? Why, make it up, of course! Yes, you're allowed to do that.

Here are some famous nonce words:

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious—Mary Poppins

ga-fluppted—Dr Seuss

Zippity—Shel Silverstein

We've already covered several ways you can make up words in our Grammar Book, such as onomatopeias, portmanteaus, or even colloquialisms, but nonce words are different.

A nonce word (also called occasionalism) is:

  • A word made up to suit a specific context.
  • It describes a particular context and serves a particular purpose.
  • It's usually used once and never heard again, except if you re-read the text or in the context of citing the work.

The word 'nonce' comes from the Middle English for þe naness, meaning "for a special occasion, for a particular purpose."

Using Nonce Words in Writing

As I mentioned before, these are mostly used once, but sometimes if a nonce word is trendy, it gets used again. It might even end up in the dictionary if it continues getting used. After all, that's how new words are created in the first place: the concept of neologism is when you coin a new term for a particular thing, and it catches on.

But how are these words to be understood if they're made-up words? Well, the idea is that you can deduct the meaning based on a mixture of elements. That might be the context or how the word sounds or is formed. Often, the reason why writers use nonce words in the first place is to bring their text alive and create a visual in the writer's mind. 

There may be times when you aren't meant to understand what the word means or the author wants you to guess, and you can usually get pretty close but will never know if you guessed it right. A great example of this is Shel Siverstein's book "Don't Bump the Glump," which consists of poems based on nonce words.

The following poem features a mysterious aquatic creature named The Slithergadee:

The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.
He may catch all the others, but he won't catch me.
No you won't catch me, old Slithergade,
You may catch all the others but you wo—

We don't know precisely what a Slithergadee is, but we can guess that it slithers like a snake and perhaps has similar features to a gator, as hinted by the letters 'ga' in the name.

Compound Nonce Words

Compound nonce words are a lot easier both to make up and to understand. They consist of grouping together two or more words to form a new meaning. Comedic movies and TV shows are notorious for doing this.

  • Usually, by the time the compound nonce word is used, the story has built up to it in a way so that you'll immediately understand what is meant.

Here are a few examples; let's see if you can figure out what or whom they are referring to:

Smelly-Cat-singing-lady is my favorite character.

They're experiencing post-Brexit-guilt.

Can I have a smell-sip of your wine?

Compound nonce words are usually joined by a hyphen.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on nonce words. I hope you found it helpful and that it answered any questions you may have. Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Nonce words are words made up for a specific purpose.
  • They tend only to be used once unless they catch on and become used more commonly. 
  • Nonce words can be individual words or compound words joined by hyphens.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our Grammar Book, a free online database full of grammar articles like this one.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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