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9 December 2015

The story of WordPress’s nonces

An etymological explanation. 

By Barbara Speed

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.

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“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.

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