Friday, July 13, 2018

At a loss for words - Hapax legomena

I was trying to find a term in a document that had a concordance today.  Because I was wrestling with a difficult issue in a book that I'm working on (which is what I was doing digging in the concordance in the first place), I was, to put it charitably, distractible. The concordance offered a link to statistics about the text, including word frequency. Huh. I clicked. (Yes, I know, not on task, but charity begins at home).  Oooh.  Hapax legomena.  Click.

Did I mention that I was dealing with a difficult writing problem?  Down the rabbit hole I went. A hapax legomena is a list of words that occur only once in a work or corpus, coming from the Greek for a single utterance. A great spot to find those weirdly apt words I love.  Like allochthonous. I managed to pull myself back from the brink and though still at a loss for words, tackle the issue in my text.

To find that Scrivener (my writing software) will do a statistical analysis of my text.  Which I proceeded to do. It's a great way to (a) procrastinate (not that I was having much difficulty with that) and (b) to find your typos. Bornze is not the alloy I was looking for.

In the end, I found the words I was looking for, resolved the problem in the least interesting way possible, finished my writing session for the day and had lunch. The End.

For those of you too young to know what a concordance is, it's the pre-digital equivalence of ⌘-f (or if you're not Mac based, Control+f).  Not the same as an index, either.

allochthonous wasn't in the concordance I was looking at, but was in my Nature Chemistry Thesis hapax legomena, created over lunch (it beat reading the news, my usual habit). It's a delightful word, was perfect for the context and easier to say than it looks.   Still, I was surprised that my editor had let it through. Thanks, Stuart!

And yes, there are unique terms for words that appear twice and only twice (and three times and four times...): dis legomenon, tris legomenon, and tetrakis legomenon.  I'm chagrined to admit that "armamentarium" is a tris legomenon in my published corpus.

Hapax legememon can make trouble for lexicographers trying to translate works from ancient languages for which we have only small samples.  They are also at a loss for words, I suppose.  Mental Floss had a short piece on hapax, in which they note a word once translated as "bowel" turned out instead to be "latrine." I could see the connection, but imagine how this changed the text.

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