Nonce Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It

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If you’ve never heard of the word nonce, you are not alone. This obscure word doesn’t appear on many word lists, but it’s an important word to understand because of its wildly different definitions. 

Nonce is a great example of how language evolves and how words gain new meanings over time. Words change their meaning and gain new definitions based on historical events, technology, and the culture of the day. 

So, today’s word of the day is nonce. By the end of this guide, you’ll have a full understanding of the word nonce, its varying definitions, its history, and how to use it. Let’s get started. 

What’s the Definition of Nonce?

The word nonce has been around for centuries, since the time of Middle English. Over time it developed different forms. In the late 20th century, the slang term nonce came about with a completely new definition. Here are both of the definitions for the word nonce, pronounced nɒns or nɑns

Original definition:

  • Noun: a single present event, purpose, or particular occasion; the time being
  • Adjective: used only for one event, on a one-off basis

Slang definition:

  • Noun: a sex offender, a person convicted of a sexual crime, mostly a term reserved for a child molester

The original definition was used to indicate something that was used on a one-off basis. Most of the time, the word was used in the phrase “for the nonce” in this way. Eventually, nonce also became an adjective used with a similar meaning. 

Centuries after that, the slang term nonce arose as a new word entirely. This prison slang term is mostly used as a derogatory term to describe a pedophile, but can also be used to describe anyone convicted of an evil and wicked sexual crime.

What Is the Origin of the Word Nonce? 

To bring further clarity to these two definitions, let’s break down the etymology of each word. 

The original definition of nonce was derived from Middle English around the 13th century. The original phrase widely used in Middle English was þan anes or then anes. The Middle English then translates to the word “the,” and the word anes translates to “once.” 

So, the phrase then anes literally means “for the once.” The word nonce is based on a misspelling of this phrase: the nanes. This eventually continued to transliterate into the word we now know today, meaning something used only for the present occasion. 

Nonce became quite a popular word in the 1800s with the introduction of the phrase “nonce word.” One of the authors of what is now known as The Oxford Dictionary coined this term in the dictionary, using it to describe words that were coined only for a single occasion.

Since then, the usage of the word nonce steadily declined in the English language, and it is rarely used today by this definition. 

The Slang Term

Usage of the word nonce increased once again in the 1970s in England. This prison slang term came to mean “sex offender,” “child molester,” or “pedophile/paedophile.” It has been difficult for linguists to get authentication on where the term specifically actually came from, but its first recorded usage is in the year 1970. 

Despite its unknown origin, there are a few theories about where this term originated. One popular but incorrect theory is that it is an acronym that stands for “not on normal communal exercise.” This references the fact that sex offenders were often separated from other prisoners, and thus, not on normal communal exercise. However, this theory has been debunked. 

It’s more likely that the term is a slang term from the Lincolnshire dialect in the UK. There, the term nonse (with slightly different spelling than nonce) is short for the word nonsense and was used to describe someone who is good for nothing and full of nonsense. The word nonce changed in spelling and was adopted by prison culture in the UK. 

Other Meanings for Nonce 

In the modern-day, a new usage for the word is coming about, specifically in the world of cryptography, the study of secure communications. 

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a nonce is a time-varying value that is unlikely to repeat itself. A cryptographic nonce is mostly used to secure communications and can take the form of a timestamp, a sequence number, or some other number that only needs to be used once. 

What Are Some Example Sentences for Nonce?

Here are a few example sentences that use the word nonce. There are sentences with each of the different definitions. 

A one-off use:

Paper plates and cups are typically used for the nonce, but some people wash and reuse them.

My friends and I often make up nonce words as an inside joke that many people probably won’t understand. 

A sex-offender:

I saw that nonce down in the mess hall queue yesterday. I think he’s finally out of solitary confinement.

Quit looking at me like that, you nonce! You’re being a creep!

In cryptography:

Through the usage of nonces, we can create safe communication that is incredibly difficult to hack.

By using nonces as challenges in challenge-response authentication, we can make highly secure communication.

What Are Some Synonyms of Nonce? 

Here are some synonyms for each definition of the word nonce.

For the present occasion:

  • One-off
  • Here and now
  • Time being
  • In the moment
  • Single-use

Sex offender:

  • Pedophile
  • Sex offender
  • Rapist 
  • Sexual deviant


The word nonce has a long and strange history, and there are several completely different meanings to this word. Because of this, it’s incredibly important that you understand its definitions and how it is used. 

Now you know everything you need to know about the word nonce. Use it confidently in your writing and your speech, and if you ever need a refresher, come back to this article for the information you need.


Nonce definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary 

A “nonce” story–and another faux acronym? | Linguist List 

nonce – Glossary | Computer Security Resource Center | National Institute of Standards and Technology