Q: During a college lecture on German declensions, my professor said “nonce” in the phrase “for the nonce” is the only remaining word in English that retains a piece of an early English declensional ending. Is this the case?
A: The phrase “for the nonce” (meaning “for the occasion” or “temporarily”) has been seen in various forms and spellings over the years.
The version you ask about is the result of a mistake in medieval times as Old English was evolving into Middle English and declensions were falling into disuse.
(In Old English, as in modern German, a word may change its form – that is, be declined – to show its function in a sentence.)
In Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon days, the phrase was seen as to tham annum, meaning for that one thing.
By early Middle English, when the article “the” was still being declined, the expression was for then anes, meaning “for the one.” (The word then was the form “the” took with a singular neuter indirect object.)
Sometime in the 12th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, English speakers (apparently because of their declining grasp of declensions) mistakenly thought the expression for then anes was for the nanes.
The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the erroneous version dates from around 1200: All forr the naness.
The first OED citation for the full “nonce” version of the phrase is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598): “I have cases of Buckram for the nonce, to immaske our noted outward garments.”
Does “nonce” preserve a snippet of an early declensional ending? Perhaps, but I see the word not as a relic of Old English declensions, but as a reminder of English’s evolution by trial and error.
The word “nickname,” for example, is the result of a similar error. It’s derived from an extremely old word, “ekename” (an “eke” is an addition or a piece added on). The first published reference to “ekename,” according to the OED, appeared in 1303.
Over the years, the pronunciation of “an ekename” was misunderstood as “a nekename,” which in turn led to the modern word “nickname,” first recorded in the 17th century. I touched on this subject last year in a blog posting about nicknames.
The same thing, but in reverse, happened with “an apron” (originally “a napron”). And our word “orange” went through a similar transformation before entering English. It started in Old French as une narange (borrowed from the Arabic naranj), but it became une arange, une orenge, and eventually une orange. It entered English from Old French in 1380 – as “an orenge.”
Is “nonce” unique in preserving part of a declensional ending from Old English? Not by a long shot. The words “who” and “whom,” “he” and “him,” “she” and “her,” and others reflect similar Old English endings.
I might mention here that “nonce word” (a word coined or used for a particular occasion) is a term that James Murray, the founding editor of the OED, coined and used in 1884 for the first edition of the dictionary.