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The story of Wordpress’s nonces

An etymological explanation. 

We all know what nonce means. It means paedophile, right? Someone, in the words of Oxford Dictionaries, "convicted of a sexual offence, especially against a child."

So when Twitter user @thepigeonpost stumbled across this blogpost, titled "an introduction to WordPress nonces", the whole internet giggled its way through the unintentionally funny piece. (Especially enjoyable was the subhead "What does a nonce look like"?)

WordPress itself hosts a long explanation of its nonces, beginning with the simple definition: "A nonce is a 'number used once' to help protect URLs and forms from certain types of misuse, malicious or otherwise." But the site hasn't accidentally re-coined a British slang word: this usage of the term has actually been around since 1150, and still forms the primary meaning of the word in most dictionaries. 

While it makes sense as a shortening of "n(umber used )once", it actually started out as a truncated version of "the" and the Middle English word "ane", meaning "one". Over time, "thane" became "nonce" via what Oxford Dictionaries calls a "wrong division", which is where a word loses or gains letters based on words commonly used before or after. Another example is "newt", which was originally "ewt" but took on the "n" thanks to misunderstandings of the phase "an ewt". 

This sense of "nonce" is now rarely used, but is a very useful and commonly used concept in technology, where unque strings of numbers and letters are used to create unique website links or profiles, or send secure data via encryption. Confusingly, Wordpress's nonces used as security keys aren't only used once, but they still, according to the site, "protect against several types of attack" in URLs.

"Nonce", meaning sex offender, came from different roots altogether: it seems to have started in prisons, and comes either from the word "Nonsense" or the Lincolnshire slang "nonse", meaning "good for nothing person", depending on who you ask.

So in summary: Wordpress looks a bit silly, but less silly than you might assume. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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The science and technology committee debacle shows how we're failing women in tech

It would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

Five days after Theresa May announced, in her first Prime Minister’s Questions after the summer recess, that she was "particularly keen to address the stereotype about women in engineering", an all-male parliamentary science and technology committee was announced. You would laugh if it wasn’t all so depressing.

It was only later, after a fierce backlash against the selection, that Conservative MP Vicky Ford was also appointed to the committee. I don’t need to say that having only one female voice represents more than an oversight: it’s simply unacceptable. And as if to rub salt into the wound, at the time of writing, Ford has still not been added to the committee list on parliament's website.

To the credit of Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP who was elected chair of the committee in July, he said that he didn't "see how we can proceed without women". "It sends out a dreadful message at a time when we need to convince far more girls to pursue Stem [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects," he added. But as many people have pointed out already, it’s the parties who nominate members, and that’s partly why this scenario is worrying. The nominations are a representation of those who represent us.

Government policy has so far completely failed to tap into the huge pool of talented women we have in this country – and there are still not enough women in parliament overall.

Women cannot be considered an afterthought, and in the case of the science and technology committee they have quite clearly been treated as such. While Ford will be a loud and clear voice on the committee, one person alone can’t address the major failings of government policy in improving conditions for women in science and technology.

Study after study has shown why it is essential for the UK economy that women participate in the labour force. And in Stem, where there is undeniably a strong anti-female bias and yet a high demand for people with specialist skills, it is even more pressing.

According to data from the Women’s Engineering Society, 16 per cent of UK Stem undergraduates are female. That statistic illustrates two things. First, that there is clearly a huge problem that begins early in the lives of British women, and that this leads to woefully low female representation on Stem university courses. Secondly, unless our society dramatically changes the way it thinks about women and Stem, and thereby encourages girls to pursue these subjects and careers, we have no hope of addressing the massive shortage in graduates with technical skills.

It’s quite ironic that the Commons science and technology committee recently published a report stating that the digital skills gap was costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.

Read more: Why does the science and technology committee have no women – and a climate sceptic?

Female representation in Stem industries wasn’t addressed at all in the government’s Brexit position paper on science, nor was it dealt with in any real depth in the digital strategy paper released in April. In fact, in the 16-page Brexit position paper, the words "women", "female" and "diversity" did not appear once. And now, with the appointment of the nearly all-male committee, it isn't hard to see why.

Many social issues still affect women, not only in Stem industries but in the workplace more broadly. From the difficulties facing mothers returning to work after having children, to the systemic pay inequality that women face across most sectors, it is clear that there is still a vast amount of work to be done by this government.

The committee does not represent the scientific community in the UK, and is fundamentally lacking in the diversity of thought and experience necessary to effectively scrutinise government policy. It leads you to wonder which century we’re living in. Quite simply, this represents a total failure of democracy.

Pip Wilson is a tech entrepreneur, angel investor and CEO of amicable