Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I came across the word “non-affair” in Jeffery Archer’s novel Kane and Abel, which I just finished reading yesterday. The word appears in the following sentence (p. 544):

“She couldn’t recall another occasion when she was so aware of a first kiss. When he left her in the shadows of Fifty-Seventh Street, she realized that this time he had not mentioned tomorrow. She felt slightly wistful about the whole non-affair.”

I took 'non-affair' simply as the absence of any positive actions / events, and thought the word should be in every dictionary. But, curiously enough, Oxford, Cambridge, and Merriam-Webster don't include “non-affair” as a headword despite its casual look, though they include several dozens of “non+noun” compounds ranging from 'non-aggression,' 'non-appearance,' 'non-event' to 'non-stop,''non-violent,' and 'non-white.'

Google's NGram Viewer neither show any instances of 'non-affair.'

Is “non-affair” a well-used English word, or just a coinage by the author?

share|improve this question
1  
I think you answered your own question. –  SEL Mar 17 '13 at 2:23
1  
You can always derive new “words” using productive combining forms. That doesn’t mean they all go in the dictionary. –  tchrist Mar 17 '13 at 14:34

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

It's not really a coinage by Archer. It's simply a compound created by applying the standard rule in English that allows anyone to create a negative form by prefixing the negative /non-/ to a noun (non-affair) or adjective (non-significant [for statistics instead of insignificant]). This kind of word creation is rule-governed, so the words usually don't appear in the dictionary unless they're frequently used. Sometimes a good dictionary will list a number of such words under a popular headword but won't define them, e.g. Merriam-Websters 3rd Unabridged:

"Main Entry: non-

Function:prefix Etymology:Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin non not, from Old Latin noenum, from ne- not + oinom, neuter of oinos one * more at NO, ONE

: not : reverse of : absence of: nonacademic, nonconformity, nonbreakable, nonproductive, nonintervention, non-Arabic, non-Mormon, nonrush hours"

share|improve this answer

It is fairly common. I think NGram may be having an issue with the hyphenated use. The fact that it's not in the dictionary directly is not remarkable because the "non-" prefix is standard no matter which word it's in front of.

It could be related to this definition of "affair":

a matter occasioning public anxiety, controversy, or scandal

So a non-affair is a matter that is non-controversial, non-worrisome, and lacking in scandal. In other words: dull.

Or as jwpat7 pointed out, this other one:

An adulterous relationship.

Meaning that the kiss in the quoted passage was wholly innocent. Either way, there's not much to see here beyond the literal meaning.

share|improve this answer
2  
I think you've missed the meaning of affair, which I imagine in this case to be sense 5, “An adulterous relationship”, a relationship he and she don't have. But I haven't read the book recently enough to remember particular circumstances. –  jwpat7 Mar 17 '13 at 3:47
    
@jwpat7 - Err, yes - you might be right now that I read that particular passage again. It can be either definition though, really, depending on the context. –  Lynn Mar 17 '13 at 6:16

The hyphen is a special operator for Google Ngrams, but, as their help page explains:

Because users often want to search for hyphenated phrases, put spaces on either side of the - sign.

Here's a working Ngram showing the word is used:

Ngram showing non-affair in use from 1800 to 2000, and a steady rise from around 1900 to a five-fold use in 2000

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.