In a Word: The One and Only Hapax Legomenon

Here's a term you don’t often see for a term you don’t often see.


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Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

No, Hapax Legomenon isn’t some nefarious character produced from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, or even Douglas Adams (though there is a character named Hapax in the Disney cartoon Mighty Med). It’s a term from linguistics, and its meaning is as plain as can be — if you understand Greek. It combines the adverb hapax “once” and legomenon “being said” — a present passive participle of legein “to say.”

A hapax legomenon is a word or term that appears only once within a document or corpus. (Corpus, from the Latin for “body,” is simply a collection of recorded text or speech, often used for linguistic study.) It entered the English language in the late 17th century.

The works of William Shakespeare — known for wide variety in his vocabulary — are estimated to contain more than 6,000 hapax legomena (the plural form). The most famous is probably honorificabilitudinitatibus, which appears only in Love’s Labor’s Lost (though he wasn’t the only writer to use the word). But spend a little time with the corpus of Shakespeare’s complete works and you can find plenty of others, such as outvenoms1, pajock2, and the more mundane socks3.

In more ancient texts or in corpora (the plural of corpus) written in dead languages, hapax legomena can be problematic because if only the one use is known, the word’s meaning might not be clear, and a translation would involve academic conjecture based on context. That’s not much of a problem for Modern English, though, considering how much new writing English-speakers produce every day.

* * *

  1. Cymbeline III.4: “No, ’tis slander, / Whose edge is sharper than the sword, whose tongue / Outvenoms all the worms of Nile, whose breath /Rides on the posting winds and doth belie / All corners of the world.”
  2. Pajock is another name for a peacock, but is used in Hamlet III.2 metaphorically to mean a savage or degenerate: “For thou dost know, O Damon dear, / This realm dismantled was / Of Jove himself, and now reigns here / A very, very — pajock.”
  3. The Merry Wives of Windsor III.5: “By the Lord, a buck-basket! Ramm’d me in with foul shirts and smocks, socks, foul stockings, greasy napkins, that, Master Brook, there was the rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.”

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  1. I love this week’s ‘In A Word’ Andy. Thou dost know I LOVE the ye olde English with it’s Latin, Greek sometimes French, Roman (and who knows what else sometimes?) roots. Hapax Legomenon indeed, “once”, “being said” or “to say”. I should take some Greek and Roman Antiquity courses online. I got an ‘A’ in it in high school, after all.

    Reading ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor” is something I need to take a stab at. Love the quote here. Sure it’s kind of complicated, but that’s part of the challenge. Even if I can’t fully understand it, it just sounds great! My own favorite era is 1700’s (later section) to pre Civil War, where English was at the wonderful juncture between Shakespeare and modern English.

    The later 18th century writings of The Post’s own Ben Franklin’s quotes still pose understanding challenges to this one born in the Jet Age, in some instances. Not all are as easy to understand as “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Nowadays we could swap out ‘man’ for ‘person’ but it doesn’t sound as good.


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