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?

  • 1
    I think you answered your own question.
    – SEL
    Mar 17, 2013 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, 2013 at 14:34

3 Answers 3


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"


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.

  • 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. Mar 17, 2013 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, 2013 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

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