in phrase for the nonce (Middle English for þe naness, c. 1200) "for a special occasion, for a particular purpose," a misdivision (see N for other examples) of for þan anes "for the once," in reference to a particular occasion or purpose, the þan being an altered form of the Middle English dative definite article þam (see the). The phrase was used from early 14c. as an empty filler in metrical composition.
Entries linking to nonce
fourteenth letter of the English alphabet; in chemistry, the symbol for nitrogen.
In late Middle English a and an commonly were joined to the following noun, if that word began with a vowel, which caused confusion over how such words ought to be divided when written separately. In nickname, newt, and British dialectal naunt, the -n- belongs to a preceding indefinite article an or possessive pronoun mine.
Other examples of this from Middle English manuscripts include a neilond ("an island," early 13c.), a narawe ("an arrow," c. 1400), a nox ("an ox," c. 1400), a noke ("an oak," early 15c.), a nappyle ("an apple," early 15c.), a negge ("an egg," 15c.), a nynche ("an inch," c. 1400), a nostryche ("an ostrich," c. 1500). My naunt for mine aunt is recorded from 13c.-17c. None other could be no noder (mid-15c.). My nown (for mine own) was frequent 15c.-18c. In 16c., an idiot sometimes became a nidiot (1530s), which, with still-common casual pronunciation, became nidget (1570s), now, alas, no longer whinnying with us.
It is "of constant recurrence" in the 15c. vocabularies, according to Thomas Wright, their modern editor. One has, among many others, Hoc alphabetum ... a nabse, from misdivision of an ABC (and pronouncing it as a word), and Hic culus ... a ners. Also compare nonce, pigsney. Even in 19c. provincial English and U.S., noration (from an oration) was "a speech; a rumor."
The process also worked in surnames, from oblique cases of Old English at "by, near," as in Nock/Nokes/Noaks from atten Oke "by the oak;" Nye from atten ye "near the lowland;" and see Nashville. (Elision of the vowel of the definite article also took place and was standard in Chancery English of the 15c.: þarchebisshop for "the archbishop," thorient for "the orient.")
But it is more common for an English word to lose an -n- to a preceding a: apron, auger, adder, umpire, humble pie, etc. By a related error in Elizabethan English, natomy or atomy was common for anatomy, noyance (annoyance) and noying (adj.) turn up 14c.-17c., and Marlowe (1590) has Natolian for Anatolian. The tendency is not limited to English: compare Luxor, jade (n.1), lute, omelet, and Modern Greek mera for hēmera, the first syllable being confused with the article.
The mathematical use of n for "an indefinite number" is attested by 1717 in phrases such as to the nth power (see nth). In Middle English n. was written in form documents to indicate an unspecified name of a person to be supplied by the speaker or reader.
definite article, late Old English þe, nominative masculine form of the demonstrative pronoun and adjective. After c.950, it replaced earlier se (masc.), seo (fem.), þæt (neuter), and probably represents se altered by the th- form which was used in all the masculine oblique cases.
Old English se is from PIE root *so- "this, that" (source also of Sanskrit sa, Avestan ha, Greek ho, he "the," Irish and Gaelic so "this"). For the þ- forms, see that. The s- forms were entirely superseded in English by mid-13c., excepting a slightly longer dialectal survival in Kent. Old English used 10 different words for "the," but did not distinguish "the" from "that." That survived for a time as a definite article before vowels (that one or that other).
Adverbial use in the more the merrier, the sooner the better, etc. is a relic of Old English þy, the instrumentive case of the neuter demonstrative (see that).
updated on July 08, 2019
for the nonce