Inflation, well known for devaluating national currencies, has turned its murderous tentacles to the English language. Word inflation has started devaluing the word nominal.

Usage of nominal is ubiquitous in conjunction with the word fee, as in this internet offer: “Grandma’s recipe for the meatballs and spaghetti sauce is available and will be mailed to you for the nominal fee of $2.”

But too often, unwary writers use the word nominal in place of more appropriate words like small, reasonable, discounted, cheap, promotional, and economical. Savvy authors and copywriters are resolute: Nominal is not a substitute for small. Nominal enjoys a definite and distinct meaning. Unwitting writers have inflated nominal’s value.

The origin of nominal can be traced back to the year 1624. The Latin root of the word refers to “names” and “nouns.” The “al” suffix means “relating to.” A proper definition of nominal might be “in name only.” Therefore, a nominal fee would be a fee so low that we call it a fee for name’s sake only. In fact, the fee would be so minuscule that sellers would be hard-pressed to answer why they were bothering to collect money in the first place.

When is nominal correctly used?

To be nominal, the price must be insignificant, or the amount must be so drastically low compared to its true value that the price does not even deserve to be called a fee. It is merely a token gesture of payment.

Unfortunately, people profess to charging “nominal prices” when they are looking to collect serious cash. Not only are they depleting you of your savings, but they are also robbing the English language of its heritage.

Home builder and developer Sekisui House offers its buyers the Harvey Norman Package, “valued at $10,000 for a nominal fee of $1,999.” Two thousand dollars! That’s serious cash, despite the discount, certainly not nominal. 

But the egregious practice applies to smaller amounts as well.

If you belong to the Privilege Club through Qatar Airways, the airline advises that one of your benefits is that you can change your travel date for a “nominal fee of $25.” Maybe those cash-carrying oil sheiks won’t quibble over a mere $25, but we know those bucks will buy twenty-five McDonald’s hamburgers on the value menu and feed two Little League baseball teams. Here in California, reservation changes on Southwest Airlines can be made for free. That means Qatar Airways’ $25 fee fails the nominal test (P.S., bags fly free on Southwest, too, which is better than nominal).

Government bureaucrats love to describe fees as nominal

The government of DeKalb County, Georgia, says that “for a nominal fee of $20, you can retrieve a background check at the Central Records Section located at Police Headquarters in Tucker, Georgia.”

It seems like it might be a good deal until you realize you are getting a piece of paper of a public record valued at a nominal five cents. If you add some toner, make that ten cents, which would also be nominal. Perhaps DeKalb County meant to say “a reasonable fee of $20” — reasonable in the opinion of the county, given that some governments need every penny they can find because everything they touch seems to lead to fiscal deficits.

In contrast, the Clarion County Recorder’s Office in Pennsylvania will give citizens a copy of a property deed for just $2. It is possible for Clarion County to be more nominal than DeKalb County? They both claim the word nominal for their own.

Some marketers will announce a nominal fee but attach the rate to an unreasonable unit of measure. Lion Country Safari in Florida offers you a rental car to traverse the park “for a nominal fee of $10 or $18 per 1-1/2 hours” We presume the park means $10 an hour or $18 for ninety minutes. Stay four hours, and your fee is no longer nominal. It is better to get a weekend rental from Hertz and invoke your Triple A auto club discount. Perhaps you’ll find Hertz or Avis nominally cheaper.

Are babysitting fees nominal?

Celebrity Cruises tells passengers that “private in-stateroom babysitting is open to children twelve months and older for a nominal fee of $19/hr.” Read literally, the offer is to children, not their parents. We’re not sure any youngsters would opt to have a babysitter in the first place, let alone pay the fee themselves. Nevertheless, $19 per hour is not nominal. It’s a living wage, translating to about $40,000 a year.  Parents wouldn’t finish one drink before they would soon be paying out $38, which is as far away from nominal as a bogie is from a birdie.

Evidently, officials at the Museum of Art and Archaeology in Missouri think they are giving you a good deal.  They boast that the “Cast Gallery may be rented for a nominal fee of $200 for non-University of Missouri groups.” But in the same sentence, they admit if you are affiliated with the University of Missouri, the cost is only $100. So, in this case, nominal comes with a plus-size price tag if you don’t happen to have a college ID card. Who knew there were degrees of nominal: more nominal, most nominal, less nominal, and least nominal?

We’re sure the well-intentioned Northern Virginia Family Service is doing a good deed with its program to repair old vehicles. It works to ensure its old cars are “provided to low-income families for a nominal fee of $800.”

In this case, the fee is trumpeted as so absolutely nominal that they will allow families to spread out payments over nine months, but only after a $150 down payment. The offer may be a discounted car deal, but nominal is not the word to describe it.

The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) says it is pleased to provide past webcasts free to NVCA members. Others, however, “may access them for a nominal fee of $275.”  If the definition of nominal means “so tiny and inconsequential as to be a fee in name only,” then we infer that $275 is just pennies to filthy rich venture capitalists. To the rest of us, that’s a night at Harrah’s in Las Vegas with enough change for piña coladas at the pool.

Few thngs in Chicago are nominal

Up and over in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced a plan to the City Council a while back to acquire a 2.7-mile railroad embankment for the construction of a trail and a park on the city’s northwest side.

So frugal is the mayor that the Chicago Department of Transportation will acquire the property from the Canadian Pacific Railroad for a nominal fee of one dollar.

That’s truly nominal, but hidden in the fine print was the fact that the city also agreed to pay $105,000 in administrative fees associated with the vacation of the railroad right-of-way.

So in Chicagoland, there are administrative fees, and there are nominal fees as if nominal was itself a service, license, product, or form of advice. “Mr. Emanuel, I will glad you pay you Tuesday for a nominal today,” says Wimpy, eating at the Chicago city hall cafeteria.