Word of the Day: Nonce

January 6, 2012 in Word of the Day

What is a nonce? The OED offers us two meanings: the first (going back to 1175 and the original Old English root of ‘anum’) appears to be something to do with the number one; the second (origin unknown but possibly Lancastrian slang) is that of “a sexual deviant”, especially someone convicted of child abuse, and, as it only appeared in the late twentieth century, can be safely left out of this discussion.

You normally find the word ‘nonce’ in phrases with ‘for’, and Shakespeare gives us two of these. The most famous by far occurs at the end of Hamlet, when Claudius reveals one of the measures he will take to ensure Laertes victory in the upcoming duel between him and Claudius’ son-in-law.

CLAUDIUS When in your motion you are hot and dry,–
As make your bouts more violent to that end,–
And that he calls for drink, I’ll have prepar’d him
A chalice for the nonce; whereon but sipping,
If he by chance escape your venom’d stuck,
Our purpose may hold there.

Here, “for the nonce” means ‘for the particular purpose’ or, more likely, ‘for the particular occasion’. Both phrases depending on the original Old English sense of nonce as ‘one’ and thus also translatable as ‘for that one purpose’ or ‘for that one occasion’. The second of Shakespeare’s uses of the word ‘nonce’ – in <Henry IV part I – illustrates this clearly, as Pointz explains how he will camouflage his and Prince Hal’s clothes, for the express purpose of surprising Falstaff and the others on Gad’s Hill even more effectively: “sirrah, I have cases of buckram for the nonce, to immask our noted outward garments.”

One final nonce, that occurring in Henry VI part I. An Auvergnat Countess has taken the British captain Talbot prisoner, and is more than a little puzzled by the way in which her captive laughs and jokes about his being only Talbot’s “shadow”, since the captain is without his soldiers.

COUNTESS This is a riddling merchant for the nonce;
He will be here, and yet he is not here:
How can these contrarieties agree?

The ‘nonce’ here is probably best glossed as the third sense of the phrase ‘for the nonce’: quite simply, ‘verily, indeed’.

One response to “Word of the Day: Nonce”

  1. …And one further meaning of ‘nonce’, not from Shakespeare’s time but rather our own, and looking back to the original Old English sense of one:

    a number used once in HTTP Digest Authentication

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