The Language Perfectionist: Stillborn Words

New words, or neologisms, are coined all the time. Not so long ago, we didn’t have blog, downsize, iPod, megatrend, shareware, Wi-Fi… and many others.

But not every newly coined word becomes widely used or even enters the language. As you might expect, there’s a term for this phenomenon: nonce word — one that’s invented “for the nonce,” that is, for the occasion. Nonce words don’t catch on and quickly disappear.

Here are a few examples, drawn from a variety of sources:

  • dentiloquent, “talking through one’s teeth.”
  • dickel, a commemorative wooden coin ostensibly worth seven and a half cents, or halfway between a dime and a nickel. It was “minted” to commemorate the centennial of a small Illinois town. But after the celebration ended, the coin, and the word, had no value.
  • paradessence, invented by a novelist named Alex Shakar. The quality of “two opposing desires that promise to satisfy simultaneously,” such as the stimulating and relaxing effects of coffee.

The nonce-word concept might also include humorous coinages by recreational linguists. You might remember a series of books by Rich Hall in the 1980s — compilations of  “sniglets” created by mischievous contributors. Examples: aquadextrous (the ability to operate the bathtub faucet with your toes) and grisknob (the end of a chicken drumstick that appears to have more chicken on it).

You may have observed a paradox here. Doesn’t the very act of citing nonce words, as I have done above, automatically disqualify them as nonce words?

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.