In past weeks I’ve described the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as a pleasing mix of the old and the new, with musty archaisms sharing the page with the leading edge of English vocabulary. Unlike the full Oxford English Dictionary, however, the Shorter doesn’t take up space with anything too archaic, using 1700 as the arbitrary cutoff date. There are a few exceptions to the rule, however. The Shorter still supplies entries for every single word in the works of William Shakespeare, the poetry of John Milton, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and the King James Bible (a.k.a. the Authorized Version). Some of those pre-1700 contributions wouldn’t otherwise make the cut, since they never worked their way into general usage. In fact, some words aren’t attested anywhere else in the voluminous quotation files of the OED or in Oxford’s two-billion-word corpus of contemporary English. In lexicographical circles, this type of literary one-off is called a nonce word — or, using a Greek expression that’s much more fun to say, a hapax legomenon.
Hapax legomenon (plural: hapax legomena; sometimes shortened to hapax) literally means “(a thing) said only once” in Greek, and it was originally used in Biblical studies to refer to a word that appears uniquely in one place in the Old or New Testament. Biblical hapax legomena present a challenge to translators from the classical source languages of Hebrew and Greek, since they don’t have other examples of a word to use as a point of comparison. It’s especially a problem for the Hebrew Bible, since there are few other Classical Hebrew texts to work from, besides the Dead Sea Scrolls and some other fragments. We’re a bit better off when a hapax is in our own language, but they can sometimes be just as baffling.
Nonce word is actually a term that Oxford can lay claim to, since it was introduced by the great James Murray when he was overseeing the creation of the New English Dictionary, what would later become the OED. Previously nonce had lingered primarily in the expression for the nonce, meaning “for a particular purpose or occasion.” If Murray or his editors came across an ad-hoc word that couldn’t be found elsewhere in the texts available to them, it would often be marked “nonce-wd.” in the dictionary entry. There are thousands of such entries in the pages of the OED, everything from touch-me-not-ishness (from Dickens) to turnipology (“contemptuous term for phrenology”). James Kossuth has collected his favorites here, and Charlotte Brewer provides instructions for finding more in the online OED (even if they’re not marked as nonce or hapax) here.
As I mentioned, the Shorter can’t make room for every passing nonce word, or else it would be closer to the OED’s twenty volumes than to its current two volumes. Still, the hapaxes that the Shorter does include, from Shakespeare in particular, make for some entertaining reading. Here is a selection from the Bard (try working some of these into everyday conversation!):
- anthropophaginian, n.: a cannibal.
- bewhore, v.: call whore; make a whore of.
- carlot, n.: a peasant, a churl.
- demi-puppet, n.: a half-sized or dwarf puppet.
- facinorious, adj.: extremely wicked.
- fantastico, n. an absurd or irrational person; a fantastically dressed person.
- hodge-pudding, n.: a pudding made of a medley of ingredients.
- kickie-wickie, n.: a wife.
- misdread, n.: dread of evil.
- overstink, v.: stink more than; drown the stench of.
- questrist, n.: a person who goes in quest of another.
- underfiend, n.: a fiend from the regions beneath the earth.
- wappened, adj.: sexually exhausted through promiscuity.
- yravish, v.: ravish (pseudo-archaic).
Nowadays it’s much harder to find a uniquely occurring example of a word, since we have enormous online corpora at our fingertips thanks to Google and other search engines. And of course, as soon as you find an online hapax, it’s no longer a hapax as soon as you discuss it online! It’s a bit easier to find a combination of two words that appear only once on a webpage indexed by Google. This type of singular collocation has been dubbed a Googlewhack, and the hunt for them is known as Googlewhacking. It was much simpler to find Googlewhacks back in 2002 when the pastime was developed, but now most of the queries no longer yield unique search results. (I won’t mention any successful ones here lest I spoil their whackability.)
Even in the Google era, though, it’s still child’s play to invent a word that no one has thought of before, exploiting the natural productivity of English word formation. If you doubt that claim, just take a look at the Wordlustitude blog, where Mark Peters regularly unveils such online specimens as teleprompterrific and nano-bionic-whateverization. We all have the power of Shakespeare to hapaxify to our heart’s content. And yes, I just invented hapaxify.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.