A.S.H. Smyth

    The weird world of the hapax legomenon

    The weird world of the hapax legomenon
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    Today is National Indexing Day (#indexday) – at least according to the UK's Society of Indexers. 'Celebrating book indexes, indexers, and the profession of indexing.' As I write, they're wrapping up their annual jamboree, at London's Foundling Museum.

    A few months back, I was out walking the dog and listening to Dracula on my phone when I could've sworn I heard a character described as 'indexy'.

    Now, audio recordings are not always perfect, and glitches – digital or human – do creep in (I recently heard one narrator trip over a word, say 'sorry', then repeat the word and carry on – all of which remaining in the finished version). But I thought I'd give Greg Wise, narrating, the benefit of the doubt. I rewound the tape. Nope: 'indexy', for certain.

    This did not seem right at all. Anachronistic. American, perhaps. Quite frankly jargony.

    The dog was in the hedgerows, so I thought I too had time to dig around a little. I downloaded the free Kindle edition in a matter of seconds, and ran a search. And there it was. Chapter 19 – 'Jonathan Harker's Journal, 1 October, 5am' – the Prince of Darkness is at large in England, and the zoophagous madman Renfield, Dracula's acolyte, has just implored 'Jack' Seward to let him out of the insane asylum. Dr Seward, cautiously:

    'If that man had been an ordinary lunatic I would have taken my chance of trusting him; but he seems so mixed up with the Count in an indexy kind of way that I am afraid of doing anything wrong by helping his fads.'

    I sent my query immediately to Sam Leith – not coincidentally the honorary president of the Society of Indexers – inviting him to bring enthusiasm and/or expertise to bear. 'Crumbs!' he said. Was it unique? he wondered. And then he published his findings in the (members only) Spring newsletter of the Society:

    'It's a usage that appears nowhere in the complete OED, nor in the 100-million-word British National Corpus [a compendium of British English, both spoken and written, from the late 20th century]... It is a Stoker neologism.'

    It is also, it seems obvious, a hapax legomenon.

    Hapax legomenon is Greek for a word that only occurs once in any given context. There are slimmer versions of that definition (a word that only appears once in the Quran, say); but the purest examples occur just once in their – and therefore any? – language.

    It's a rare thing for a word to have been used, and in a mainstream novel too, and then not seen again in any instance – especially in the age of printed, let alone electronic, literature. (We may have ruined this, by using it again throughout this article.)

    But plenty of hapaxes exist (there's disagreement as to whether this can even be the plural.) A 'flother' – snowflake – is found but once in written English; 'hebenon', a poison referred to in Hamlet, appears to have been invented (or misunderstood) by Shakespeare; 'manticratic' was made up by T.E. Lawrence to describe a society ruled by the descendants of a prophet.

    Catullus claims the only Latin word for 'little prostitute'; the 9th-century Old High German poem Muspilli remains open to interpretation, not least since no-one knows what that word means; and I like the fact that 'epiousios' – or 'daily', in the Lord's Prayer – comes up absolutely nowhere else in ancient Greek.

    In Galway, apparently, they play an oratorical game in which contestants try to create as many hapaxes as possible. And the term itself once featured in an episode of University Challenge, in which some smart-arse took a record short time to silence Paxman with the (correct) preemptive answer.

    Hapaxes in ancient languages are of course particularly tricky to decipher, since there's often zero context for them. Mayan glyphs and many Biblical Hebrew terms remain untranslated or untranslatable. But my favourite (and perhaps the oldest?) is 'dng', the 'pygmy' in the tomb inscription of Harkhuf, the Egyptian explorer-emissary, c. 2200BC. If memory serves, this is in fact a double hapax: the word as a whole is not found elsewhere in the Egyptian corpus, and the fifth of the six glyphs which actually make up the word – naturally enough, a short wee fellow – is unique also.

    True story: to look up the word 'dng', you need a dictionary; to know what the individual hieroglyphs might mean, you need an index. Alas, the one-off pygmy from Harkhuf just isn't in there.

    For all that, I still can't get my mind round 'indexy'. So I propose another new term: 'indexisive (adj.) - unsure whether or not to include something in a lexicon or index'.

    Written byA.S.H. Smyth

    A.S.H Smyth is a journalist and radio presenter in the Falkland Islands. He was once selected to play cricket for the national side but couldn’t make it.

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