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Etymology 1

From Middle English nonse, nones, a rebracketing of Middle English to þen anes, for þen anes (to/for the once (i.e. the one occasion or instance)), from the dative singular neuter of þe. The cryptography sense is commonly said to be a contraction of number used once, although this is probably incorrect.


nonce (plural nonces)

  1. The one or single occasion; the present reason or purpose (now only in for the nonce).
    That will do for the nonce, but we'll need a better answer for the long term.
  2. (lexicography) A nonce word.
    I had thought that the term was a nonce, but it seems as if it's been picked up by other authors.
  3. (cryptography) A value constructed so as to be unique to a particular message in a stream, in order to prevent replay attacks.
    • 1978 December, Roger M. Needham, “Using Encryption for Authentication in Large Networks of Computers”, in Communications of the ACM, volume 21, number 12:
      The protocol opens with A communicating in clear to AS his own claimed identity and the identity of the desired correspondent, B, together with A's nonce identifier for this transaction, IA1. ("Nonce" means "used only once.")
    • 1999, Network Working Group, RFC 2617 – HTTP Authentication: Basic and Digest Access Authentication, The Internet Society, page 22:
      The information gained by the eavesdropper would permit a replay attack, but only with a request for the same document, and even that may be limited by the server's choice of nonce.
    • 2006, Tom St Denis, Cryptography for Developers, page 340:
      Both CCM and GCM require a unique nonce (N used once) value to maintain their privacy and authenticity goals.
    • 2012, Steven Anson, Mastering Windows Network Forensics and Investigation:
      The main idea with the challenge-response type of authentication protocol is that the challenge sent by the server is used only once (referred to as a cryptographic nonce, which means “number used once”).
Derived terms


nonce (not comparable)

  1. One-off; produced or created for a single occasion or use. Denoting something occurring once.
    • 1977, Robert Anderson Hall, David Morris Feldman, Homenaje a Robert A. Hall, Jr, page 75:
      But particular men are not stereotyped for jobs nor particular desks (as against others) to sit at - the standard here is nonce.
    • 2009, Judith FARR, Louise Carter, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, →ISBN, page 55:
      Dickinson's association of heliotrope with Mary Bowles was nonce and fleeting, but the subject of gardens was always a safe one on which to address her: “How is your garden – Mary? Are the Pinks true –?”
    • 2010, Susana Rivera-Mills, Juan Antonio Trujillo -, Building Communities and Making Connections, →ISBN, page 191:
      Poplack et al. (1988, 57) found that 65% of their types were nonce and only 7% of the types were considered widespread.
    • 2018, James Lambert, “A multitude of ‘lishes’: The nomenclature of hybridity”, in English World-Wide[1], page 16:
      Some of the single-citation terms appeared to be nonce formations, that is, created for the occasion.

Etymology 2

1975. Unknown, derived from British criminal slang. Several origins have been proposed; possibly derived from dialectal nonce, nonse (stupid, worthless individual) (but this cannot be shown to predate nonce "child-molester" and is likely a toned-down usage of the same insult), or Nance, nance (effeminate man, homosexual), from nancy or nancyboy. The rhyme with ponce has also been noted.

As prison slang also said to be an acronym for "Not On Normal Communal Exercise" (Stevens 2012), but this is likely a backronym.


nonce (plural nonces)

  1. (British, Ireland, derogatory) A sex offender, especially one who is guilty of sexual offences against children. [1975]
    • 1989 "assorted nonces, ponces and murderers, 'the worst men in the world' [...] on the nonce wing, where the child-killers, molesters and various perverts have to be protected from the other prisoners." (New Statesman, New Society, Volume 2, Statesman & Nation Publishing Company Limited)
  2. (by extension) A pedophile.
    • 2004, Jeffery Archer, A Prison Diary, St. Martin's Publishing Group, →ISBN, page 72:
      ‘He's a nonce[. A] nonsense merchant, a paedophile[,’ Terry explained.]
  3. (British, Ireland, prison slang, derogatory) A police informer, one who betrays a criminal enterprise [2000]
    Synonyms: see snitch
  4. (British, Ireland, slang, derogatory) A stupid or worthless person. [2002]
    Shut it, ya nonce!


  • T. Dalzell and T. Victor (eds.), The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: J-Z, Taylor & Francis (2006), p. 1381.
  • Alisa Stevens, Offender Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Communities, Routledge (2012), p. 174.



Borrowed (with phonetic adaptations) from Italian nunzio, itself borrowed from Latin nuntius (messenger).



nonce m (plural nonces)

  1. nuncio

Further reading