A nonce word is a lexeme created for a single occasion to solve an immediate problem of communication, or "an invented or accidental linguistic form, used only once". All nonce words are also neologisms (newly created words that have not entered the lexicon of a language). Some nonce words have a meaning and may (or may not) become an established part of the language, while others are essentially meaningless and disposable and are useful for exactly that reason, for instance in child language testing. The term nonce word was apparently the creation of James Murray, the influential editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
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In child development studies
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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. Frequently used such words include "wug", "blicket", and "dax". 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.
Examples of nonce words previously used in child developmental studies include: wug, blicket, dax, toma, pimwit, zav, speff, tulver, gazzer, fem, fendle, and tupa.
Other examples of nonce words include:
- Runcible, from Edward Lear, which later came to describe a spoon with a cutting edge.
- Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, from the movie musical Mary Poppins.
- Fnord, from the book Principia Discordia.
- Pompatus, from the Steve Miller Band song "The Joker".
- Quark, formerly a nonce word in English, appearing only in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Murray Gell-Mann then adopted it to name a new class of subatomic particle.
- 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. It did not.
- Cambridge Dictionaries Online - Nonce Word 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
- The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language. Ed. David Crystal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. p. 132. ISBN 0521401798
- Crystal, 1995, p. 455.
- Malmkjaer, Kirsten. (Ed.) (2006) The Linguistics Encyclopedia. eBook edition. London & New York: Routledge, p. 601. ISBN 0-203-43286-X