hapax legomenon /’hæpæks lɪ’gɒmənɒn/

hapaxI was re-reading a copy of Verbatim magazine a couple of days back and came across the word mansquibbing. It was used by the playwright, David Garrick, in his play Miss In Her Teens (1747), when talking about a housemaid:

“As for Cautherly mansquibbing her (which he certainly does), I don’t mind—but I suspect she has all kinds of fellows in our absence, and I don’t know what may be the consequence.”

The word mansquibbing only appears in this book and doesn’t seem to exist in any dictionary. It’s also significant that it has a ghit of 2 – and both are to the same Verbatim article. I’ve already talked about the word squib, so there may be some relation between that and mansquibbing, but

There’s a really cool word for words that only appear once in a piece of text – a word you can use gratuitously at parties: a hapax legomenon, or simply a hapax. The OED defines it as, “A word or form of which only one instance is recorded in a literature or an author.”

Its original Greek form, ἀραξ λεγόμενον, means “thing once said.” Shakespeare, for example, uses the hapax honorificabilitudinitas in Love’s Labors Lost, and Tennyson used the word achage in his drama, Queen Mary.

Biblical scholars like finding hapaxes, as do linguists working with ancient scripts. The problem with a hapax is that if you cannot work out what it means in a particular sentence, you have no way of seeing it in other contexts where you can make more guesses.  So when you are working on deciphering Mayan scripts carved on the side of a temple, if you come across a glyph that has never been seen before, it is an example of a hapax.

So go ahead – write it down, along with honorificabilitudinitas and achage, and feel free to trot them all out the next time you’re propping up the bar at the pub.

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