Hapax legomenon

[hap-aks li-gom-uh-non, hey-paks]

A hapax legomenon (or ) (pl. hapax legomena, though sometimes called hapaxes for short) is a word which occurs only once in the written record of a language, in the works of an author, or in a single text. They often prove important for attributing authorship of a work; for example, each of Shakespeare's plays contains a similar percentage of hapax legomena not found elsewhere in his work, something that would be difficult for a forger to duplicate. They also create difficulties in translation and decipherment, since inferring meaning from context becomes less certain with fewer examples. For example, many of the remaining undeciphered Mayan glyphs are hapax legomena, and Biblical hapax legomena play a large role in disputes over Bible translation.

Note that the term refers to a word's appearance in a body of text, not to its origins, nor to its prevalence in speech. It thus differs from a nonce word, which may never be recorded, or may find currency and be recorded widely, or may appear several times in the work which coins it, and so on. If a word is used twice it is a dis legomenon, thrice, a tris legomenon. Beyond tetrakis legomenon (four times), there is no term for such a word.

Hapax legomenon is from the Greek ἅπαξ λεγόμενον "[something] said only once."

The term hapax legomenon is popular among Bible scholars, who take the number of hapaxes in a putative author's corpus as an indication of his vocabulary and thereby argue for or against attribution. The identification of a word as a hapax by these authors means that it occurs once in the Bible or, more specifically, once in the New Testament.

Some examples of hapax legomena in a given language or body of work are:

  • The Book of Isaiah 34:14, describing the desolation of Edom, is the only occurrence of Lilith in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Honorificabilitudinitatibus is a hapax legomenon of Shakespeare's works.
  • Nortelrye, a word for "education", occurs exactly once in Chaucer.
  • slæpwerigne occurs exactly once in the Old English corpus, in the Exeter Book. There is debate over whether it means "weary with sleep" or "weary for sleep."
  • Autoguos (αυτογυος), an ancient Greek word for a sort of plough, is found once (and exclusively) in Hesiod, the precise meaning remaining obscure.
  • Panaorios (παναωριος), ancient Greek for "very untimely", is one of many hapax legomena of the Iliad.
  • Flother, a synonym for snowflake, is a hapax legomenon of written English pre-1900, found in a manuscript from around 1275.
  • Gvina (גבינה - cheese) is a hapax legomenon of Biblical Hebrew, found in Job 10:10. The word has been extremely common in Hebrew since its appearance in the Bible. There are more examples, like the word Hashmal (חשמל - electricity) that appears only in Ezekiel 1:4. Today it is used to refer to electricity.
  • [wood] is mentioned once in the Bible, in the instruction to make Noah's ark "of gopher wood." Because of the single appearance, the literal meaning is lost. Gopher is simply a transliteration, although scholars today tentatively suggest that the wood intended is cypress.
  • ramogna is mentioned only once in Italian literature, precisely in Dante's Divina Commedia (Purgatory XI, 25).
  • The Greek text of 1 Peter contains a total of 1,675 words and a vocabulary of 547 terms, sixty-one of which occur nowhere else in the NT (Anchor Bible Dictionary (Vol 5, O-SH, pp. 272).


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