or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, January 12, 2007

Once Upon A Time

Today in a review of an Austin, Texas, restaurant called the Blue Star Cafeteria, the redoubtable Twisty Faster, in her indispensible blog "I Blame The Patriarchy", uses the word "harbinges", and then, in an asterisked aside, commands us to investigate:

No, it's really a word. Look it up.

So I did. And it's really not a word--not a word-word, but a demi-word, a ghost-word, which is to say it kind of is a word, but of a special, rarefied sort.

First things first, though. "Harbinger" means "that which foretells or presages", a sort of embodiment of an omen. It's from Middle English "herbengar", "someone sent ahead of a travelling party to arrange lodgings", descended from "herberge", "lodging", and therefore related to modern French "auberge", "inn".

Now. I have written before about the hapax legomenon, which is a word or usage that has appeared once and once only in a language, usually as the result of a misapprehension. On occasion, someone in need of a word which doesn't exist will deliberately invent one, often by modifying an existing word with an affix, but sometimes simply creating it out of whole cloth. Usually it will live and die with the originator: perhaps it will be used by a few, or be re-invented on another occasion by someone else, or perhaps (rare occasion!) it will enter the language. This variant of the hapax legomenon is called a nonce word, for which the Wikipedia page has a concise definition:

A nonce word is a word used only "for the nonce"--to meet a need that is not expected to recur.

It is, in other words, something deliberately constructed to be a hapax legomenon.

"Harbinge", the OED tells us, is a nonce word--and they ought to know, since the term was evidently invented by James Murray, the editor of the OED. There are two listed examples of the word's use, and it's easy to get the sense that OED mentions them grudgingly: they had to put the grim back-formation in there, because they had a couple of citations for it.

In the most technical possible sense, therefore, "harbinge" is a word; it's in the dictionary. (In a dictionary, anyway, though if you were going to be in only one, the OED would be the one to be in.) However, that dictionary also tells us that "harbinge" is a made-up word which only barely qualifies for inclusion.

So "harbinge" isn't really a word, exactly. Though it sort of is. I suppose. If you insist.


Blogger Elspeth said...

You don't quote the two examples of 'harbinge' that you mention. Many years ago as a child I heard a poem about the cuckoo on the radio that went '... Harbinger of Spring, they said/ .../ So up I got at half past five/ To hear the bird harbinge/...' and I've been trying to find the rest of it ever since. Is it by chance one of your two examples?

Thursday, October 02, 2008 6:59:00 AM  
Blogger Jon Richfield said...

Elspeth, would this help? It is from "Yet More Comic and Curious Verse", by JM Cohen, penguin books, long ago...

I'll leave the formatting to you!

Jon Richfield

The Oocuck

`The cuckoo !' cried my child, the while I slept;
`Sweet pop, the cuckoo ! o, its cries impinge!
The harbinger is here!' And up I leapt
To hear the thing harbinge.

I flung the casement, thrust the visage through,
Composed the features in rhapsodic look,
Cupped the left ear and ... lo! I heard an 'oo',
Soon followed by a 'cuck'.

Another 'oo'! A 'cuck! An 'oo' again.
A 'cuck'. 'Oocuck'. 'Oocuck' Ditto. Repeat.
I tried to pick the step up but in vain —
I'd ... `oo' ... missed ... 'cuck' ... the beat.

I'd missed the beat. And this would last till June
And nothing could be done now to catch up -
This fowl would go on hiccuping its tune,
Hic after beastly cup.

'Oocuck!' ... 'Oocuck!' ... that was four weeks ago,
Four non-stop weeks of contrapuntal blight.
My nerves are ... what was that? ... Ah, no! Ah, no!
Spare me the ingalenight!
Justin Richardson

Monday, December 05, 2011 7:53:00 AM  

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