Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hapax Legomenon

I like words. I, especially, like rare words. They tend to be chewy, tasty, and all around delicious. Recently, I’ve been having a fun time playing with the most delectable of uncommon lexicographical treats: the hapax legomenon.

The literal Greek translation is something like “said only once” and refers to a word that only occurs once in a written corpus. It’s popular among biblical scholars, corpus linguists, and other word nerds doing things like debating authorship and all that jazz.

Of course, every author is bound to have a hapax legomenon or two within a body of work, so that’s not really all that interesting. Sometimes, though, even author limited hapax legomena are interesting. For example,apparently some of Leviticus’s dietary restrictions involve a number of hapax legomena in the description of which birds are non-kosher, making the exact list of which birds are acceptable to eat somewhat ambiguous.

Hebrew notwithstanding, here are some English examples of language wide hapax legomenon, mostly ganked from Wikipedia like the shameless sonovabitch I am.

“nortelrye,” meaning education, is from Chaucer.

“flother,” meaning “snowflake,” is from “written English pre-1900 found in a manuscript from around 1275.” (Wikipedia gankage)

“scamels” meaning, um, well maybe a bird, is found in Shakespeare. People aren’t entirely sure what this is, and it is a fun thing to debate.

“honorificabilitudinitatibus,” meaning “the state of being able to achieve honors,” is not a hapax legomenon of English, but rather of the Shakespeare corpus. The term is a clear Latin borrowing, and is actually attested a number of other times in the lexicon (Shakespeare wasn’t the first); a fact which continues to astound me, considering the absurdity of the word. But you know what they say: the word word word, the word is absurd.


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