As I was on my nightly stroll through the Oxford English Dictionary, I spotted a word that quite fishhooked my eye: hirquitalliency. Needless to say, my hair Van-de-Graaffed. I clicked and looked. It referred to the state, in an infant, of acquiring a strong voice, and was ported over little changed from the Latin for the same, which in turn borrowed it from a Greek word for a male goat. I looked at the citations. How many times had it ever been used, then? Once! Yes, and the OED declares it a nonce-word. Apparently nonce-words used by Sir Thomas Urquhart in or about the year 1600 are worthy of inclusion (with the dagger of obsolescence clearly affixed), even if, in terms of actual usage, they are a non-see.
Of course, one couldn’t include every nonce formation out there. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would blow the doors off the project from the get-go. But nonce words are perfectly good and useful things, suitable in their various cases for entertainment, display of erudition, filling out a line of verse, and plain old directness. They may be non-correct English, ‘n once is enough, but many things are worth doing for the nonce, and neologizing is among them.
Borrowing, compound, derivative, formation, and phrase also all attach to nonce. But outside of linguistic terms, it is seen almost exclusively in the phrase for the nonce (though I suppose it is nonced in here and there on rare occasion, when speakers don their noncing shoes). You will probably already have guessed that its present form arises from a reanalysis – a transfer of the n from word word to another. This is true. However, if you surmise that it comes from for then once, you are mistaken. The transfer happened in the Early Middle English period, back when we still had somewhat more inflection than we do now. The old form of the word one was ane, and the genitive of it was anes; it could be used adverbially in a prepositional phrase, and the definite article had a different form for the genitive, so the phrase was for than anes (to than anes was also used). As the inflections reduced in use, this established phrase became a whole nother thing: for the nanes. And that came to be for the nonce today, without ever actually involving the word once.
So… shall we nonce? It has a nice, light touch to it, doesn’t it? Like the tip of the finger tapping a moment in time, no more than an ounce of eternity (though, ironically, the tongue taps twice, holding the second time). It’s all small, round letters. They could be logical operators: the n is like the intersection sign, the c is like the subset sign, the e could be the “element of” sign, and the o a Venn diagram with only one circle. A single set, a set of one, arising at the unique intersection of specific circumstances, a subset that is an element of… what? Of all the possibilities of that word. Or perhaps the ce is the eyes of a person running a cups-and-ball game (cup: n; ball: o), one eye winking at you: just this once I’ll let you have it, and he flips the middle cup to show you: non. Like that ball, what is for the nonce has a sort of spatiotemporal ubeity; it is, we may say, ad-hocsome. It is a party of one.
Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting nonce.