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.]