Which Word Wednesday: Neologism vs. Nonce Word

By July 27, 2011 language No Comments

You can tell a lot about a person based on the slang they use. For example, if you toss in a supportive, “Groovy!” with any regularity we know you were alive and alert in the 1970s. Or you are a loyal Brady Bunch fan.

We must watch the slang we pick up, for it will stick to our lexicographical ribs and give us company for years to come. All this slang analysis makes for a Which Word Wednesday entry between neologism and nonce word, both used to categorize and describe new words and phrases. Here are the definitions from the Oxford American Dictionary:

neologism :: noun
a newly coined word or expression

nonce word :: noun
(of a word or expression) coined for or used on one occasion

Both words refer to words or expressions that are newly coined. But the nonce word “is one coined ‘for the nonce’—that is, made up for one occasion and unlikely to be used again.”1

This seems sort of sad, don’t you think? All that creativity tossed aside after one use. The good news is that even if the creator meant it for single use, if others pick it up and get it into regular use, it transforms from a nonce word to a neologism and it becomes a part of our regular lexicon.

A recent example of a nonce word comes from a FoodNetwork show I thoroughly enjoy, The Next FoodNetwork Star. In this week’s episode, one of the contestants created a dish consisting of lasagna wrapped in a tortilla (burrito style) and deep-fried. He called it a la-changa (combining lasagna and chimichanga). The dish wasn’t a hit, so my guess is this nonce word will not be transforming into a neologism.

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What’s my WWW verdict? Be careful which neologisms you pick up. Like all habits, it takes just a few uses to turn a fancy into a habit. And some words we have trouble breaking free from.

What’s your verdict? Do you find some slang difficult to shake? What’s your favorite slang phrase? Do share in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 148.

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