A nonce word is a lexeme created for a single occasion to solve an immediate problem of communication. Quark, for example, was 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. Nonce words are also neologisms (newly created words that have not entered the lexicon of a language), but unlike neologisms, few nonce words have any particular meaning or go on to become established words. Typically, the nonce word is essentially meaningless and disposable. The use of the term nonce word in this way was apparently the work of James Murray, the influential editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. An example of a nonce word in the works of Shakespeare is "honorificabilitudinitatibus".
Use 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".
References and sources
- 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
- Malmkjaer, Kirsten. (Ed.) (2006) The Linguistics Encyclopedia. eBook edition. London & New York: Routledge, p. 601. ISBN 0-203-43286-X