Monday, November 27, 2006

One Singular Sensation: hapax legomenon



I have been asked to share the strangest term that I know. One of the top contenders has to be hapax legomenon.

A hapax legomenon is a word or grammatical structure that occurs only once in the entire written record of a language, only once in the complete works of a particular author, or only once in a single text. It comes from two Greek words: hapax (once only) and legomenon (having been said).

Linguists--especially those who work with ancient languages--pay particular attention when they find a single instance of a word unconfirmed anywhere else in a work.

For one thing, it makes it difficult to render an accurate translation. They must become even more acutely aware of context and what it can reveal about the term. For another, they must weigh the possibility that the word or structure is simply a typo or the product of mishearing. They don’t enjoy the security afforded by multiple instances in a variety of contexts.

Biblical scholars in particular must deal with this reality. The Jewish Encyclopedia points to about 400 unique, unconnected terms in the Old Testament. They occur in the Song of Songs, the Book of Job, and in passages dealing with detailed lists, such as Leviticus or Deuteronomy.

On the extra-biblical scene, Chaucer uses the word nortelrye in the Reeve’s Tale:
/ Hir thoghte / þat a lady sholde hir spare / What for hir kynrede /
and hir nortelrye / That she hadde lerned / in the Nonnerye /. . . .
The word seems to mean education, but it never shows up again.

And in Love’s Labour Lost, Shakespeare used the word honorificabilitudinitatibus, evidently for the first and only time in his works. The character Costard says,
O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words.
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.

The singularity concept found in hapax also appears in the combining form haplo-, though they are not directly connected.

• Haplology is the utterance of one letter, syllable, or word instead of two.
• A haplodont has crowns of the molar teeth that are simple or single, and not divided into
ridges, etc.
• Haplography is single writing; the unintentional writing of a letter or word, or series of
letters or words, once, when it should be written twice.

Sidebar: Haplology and vowel underspecification



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