If you like to taste words, I have a hunch this one will give you much to munch on. You may have seen it before, with or without enough context to know its sense. It seems to me that it would be perfect for the act of chewing down a little seed (as of strawberry or sesame) between one’s incisors, but that’s not what it means. It could name a cross between nunchuks and a truncheon, but doesn’t have that punch. I thought at one time that it was a word for luncheon used by the same sorts as give then name Ned to Edward and may call their uncle nunk. But no, not quite.

It is a noontime thing, yes, or mid-afternoon, but not so much a meal as a nonchalant shench to quench. Shench? That’s a disused word now, but it means a drink. A tipple. A little nip. Yes, a nuncheon is day-drinking between meals. More broadly, it can be any sort of refreshing little snack – a nibble to keep you going. But remember where it comes from: a schench at noon – a noneschenche.

Does that look like drunken nonsense? Well, that’s just what you’re going to get if you’re going to get drunk senseless at noon. Your afternoon scribal duties will be sloppy. I have a pet hypothesis that every historic scribe who transcribed this word had been imbibing interprandially. Have a look at all the different spellings of it over the centuries in the Oxford English Dictionary: noensshynches, nonchynche, nonesenches, nonschenche, nonschenches, nonschonches, nonsenche, nonsenches, nonsenchis, nonsynches, noonschench, nounschenches, nunseynches, noneschankis, noneschanks, noneshankis, noneshanks, novnschankis, nownschankis, noynsankys, noynschankis, nunschankis, nwnschankis, noncyens, nonshynges, nonshyns, nonsiens, nooncense, noonchyns, noonnchyns, nunsens, nunchings, nuncions, nuntions, nunchions, nunchens, noonshyns, noneshyne, noonshun, noonchine, noonchin, noonshun, noonchion, nunchin, nuncion, nuntion, onchion, nonchion, nunchion, nunching, nuncian, nuncheon, nunching, nunchin, nunchion, nunchun, nunshon.

Now, I know that much of this is due to the fluidity of English spelling over the centuries, and to various misconjectures and reconjectures, but it’s hard for my modern mind not to imagine other kinds of fluid in play when I see a sentence such as this one from Scotland in 1529: “Haiffand ilk werk day ane half hour afor nyne houris afor none to his disjone, and ane othir half hour afor four houris eftyr none to his nunschankis.” I think if I were to put back a pint or a pair as a nuncheon in place of my mid-afternoon coffee, or – worse yet – some moonshine for noonshine, I would risk producing just such prose.

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