Is that a Hapax Legomenon?

By Maeve Maddox

One of my favorite terms used in the study of literature is hapax legomenon [hā’păks’ lĭ-gŏm’ə-nŏn’]:

A word or form of which only one instance is recorded in a literature or an author.

A famous example from the works of Shakespeare (1564)-1616) is honorificabilitudinitatibus. It occurs in Love’s Labour’s Lost (V, i) in a passage in which Shakespeare is ridiculing ink-horn terms and new pronunciations. Note: Moth is a page of very short stature.

SIR NATHANIEL
I praise God for you, sir: your reasons at dinner
have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without
scurrility, witty without affection, audacious without
impudency, learned without opinion, and strange with-
out heresy. I did converse this quondam day with
a companion of the king’s, who is intituled, nomi-
nated, or called, Don Adriano de Armado.

HOLOFERNES
Novi hominem tanquam te: his humour is lofty, his
discourse peremptory, his tongue filed, his eye
ambitious, his gait majestical, and his general
behavior vain, ridiculous, and thrasonical. He is
too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd, as it
were, too peregrinate, as I may call it.

SIR NATHANIEL
A most singular and choice epithet.

HOLOFERNES
He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should
say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt,–d,
e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf;
half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebor; neigh
abbreviated ne. This is abhominable,–which he
would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of
insanie: anne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.

MOTH
[Aside to COSTARD] They have been at a great feast
of languages, and stolen the scraps.

COSTARD
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 OED does not have an entry for honorificabilitudinitatibus, but it does have one for honorificabilitudinity which is defined as “honourableness” and illustrated with quotations from Thomas Nashe and others. Here’s the one from Nashe:

Physitions deafen our eares with the Honorificabilitudinitatibus of their heauenly Panachæa, their soueraigne Guiacum.– Nashe, Lenten Stuffe (1599)

The Wikipedia article on honorificabilitudinitatibus defines it as “the state of being able to achieve honours” and points out that the form honorificabilitudo occurs in a Latin charter of 1186 and in a play by John Marston (1576 -1634): The Dutch Courtezan (1605).

When hapax legomena occur in the works of ancient authors, translating them can be difficult. Many a paper has been written on the Homeric Hapax Legomena in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Sometimes the meaning of a hapax legomenon can be easily guessed from the context. Sometimes it can’t.

The Old English poem Beowulf has many hapax legomena. One of them may be of interest to readers and writers of fantasy fiction: orcneas.

J.R.R. Tolkein introduced the word orc to fantasy writing in the sense of evil creatures that work harm against human beings. He got the word from his study of Beowulf.

Three “orc” words occur in Beowulf. Two are spelled “orcas” and are used with the meaning of “cup” or “pitcher” in descriptions of the dragon’s hoarded treasure:

ealdes uhtflogan, orcas stonddan (“the dragon’s cups stood”) line 2760
Him big stodan  bunan ond orcas (“beside him stood cups and pitchers”) line 3047

The Old English word orc as used in these lines is related to our word ark. It denotes a container.

The hapax logenenomon, orcneas, occurs in line 112:

eotenas ond ylfe   ond orcneas (giants and elves and “orcneas”)

The poet is listing the spawn of Cain: giants and elves, and “orcneas.” Klaeber glosses orcneas as “evil spirits, monsters.” The poet’s use of orcneas to refer to something devilish may be the result of his acquaintance with Latin, or at least an Old English gloss on the Latin word orcus.

Orcus was another name for the god of the Underworld. Lucretius and Vergil used the word to refer to the infernal regions. A 7th century Old English glossary equates Latin orcus with OE þyrs, “giant, demon, wizard,” and heldiubol. “hell-devil.”
Thanks to a hapax legomenon in Beowulf, we have those horrible, smelly Orcs.

NOTE: The orcs discussed in this post are not related to “the killer whale, Orcinus orca (formerly known as Delphinus orca or Orca gladiator).

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


7 Responses to “Is that a Hapax Legomenon?”

  • Tony Hearn

    ‘One of my favorite Latin terms used in the study of literature is hapax legomenon’. Oh no it isn’t, Maeve, it’s Greek!!

  • Maeve

    @Tony
    Grrrr. You wouldn’t believe how long I spent writing this one.

    Thanks. I’ll fix it.

  • Ken Khelah

    … And I appreciate that, Maeve.

  • Ajaan Rob

    That was very interesting article. Thank you.
    Can you run more themes or writing patterns?

    I teach ESL / EFL university students so anything in theme units or writing styles could be applied in the classroom.

    By the way, have either of read the book, “Nitty Gritty Grammar?”…funny and clever way to teach practical applications of English grammar.

  • Alexandra Tseliou

    Dear Maeve,

    it is greek indeed, as it seems Tony was quicker than me.
    Hapax means once, and legomenon is the past participle of the verb lego which means say, so all together it’s “said only once”.

    Congratulations for your site, I strongly appreciate the tips for correct use of english language!

    Kind regards,
    Alexandra Tseliou
    Athens, Greece

  • Maeve

    @Alexandra,
    Yes, I appreciate Tony’s sharp eye. I like to think that I would have caught it myself if I’d proofed the piece carefully enough.

  • Peter

    and legomenon is the past participle of the verb lego

    Hmm…it’s a present (passive — or middle, but in this case passive) participle in ancient Greek (I don’t know about modern Greek; but the term comes from ancient Greek, so it doesn’t matter). The aorist passive participle would be lechtheis or errhêtheis.

Leave a comment: