Mind your language

What’s the word for a word that’s been used only once?

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

It is easy to speak a sentence never spoken before since the world came fresh from its mould. It’s not so easy to say a word unsaid by any other lips.

In its second edition (1989) the Oxford English Dictionary recorded numbskullism with a single illustrative quotation, from Anne Seward, a younger contemporary of Samuel Johnson’s from Lichfield, who wrote of the numbskullism of George I and George II. In a revision of 2000, the OED adds a citation from a video game newsletter. Any old body could use it now. There remains numskullity, unattested since Jeremy Bentham used it in 1779 — until now, that is.

Since English employs a gamut of suffixes, there is hardly a limit to the words to whichism ority could be added. What we prefer is a lively, independent word with a well-fenced semantic field of its own to gambol in. Perhaps the term for ‘word found only once’ is an example: hapax legomenon.

Intriguingly hapax legomenon was not included in the OED when it got to H in 1898. I suppose it was regarded as Greek, though in common use among biblical scholars. It was scooped up in the supplement of 1933 and illustrated by a couple of 19th-century quotations. The great editor of the OED, James Murray, had used the term nonce-word for one coined just for the occasion. This seems to me an obviously different concept. The hapax legomena in the Bible happen to be unique in that text, but need not have been invented for the nonce. But hapax legomenon and nonce-word have become confused in usage.

In his wisdom, Mr Wiki gives as an example of a hapax legomenon in written English: flother, ‘snowflake’, found in a manuscript of 1275. But a couple more examples, from a 14th-century glossary, are given in the Middle English Dictionary.

A more familiar example is borogoves, from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. It is also used in the catachrestic form borogroves by those who half assimilate the word to something more familiar. The word is not found in the OED, unlike chortle, equally invented for the poem. Perhaps that is because chortle passed into common usage and became a pollakis legomenon, a word used often.

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