Hapax legomenon  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A hapax legomenon, sometimes abbreviated to hapax) is a word which occurs only once in either the written record of a language, the works of an author, or in a single text. Hapax legomenon is from the Greek ἅπαξ λεγόμενον "[something] said only once."

The related terms dis legomenon, tris legomenon and tetrakis legomenon refer respectively to double, triple or quadruple occurrences.


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.

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:

  • Polyolbiosis by Coleridge
  • 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 Ḥashmal (חשמל) that appears only in Ezekiel 1. Today it is used to refer to electricity.
  • Akut (אקוט - fought), only has one mention in the Hebrew Bible. It is only mentioned in Psalms 95:10.
  • Gopher wood is mentioned once in the Bible, at Genesis 6:14, 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).
  • trasumanar is another hapax legomenon mentioned in Dante's Divina Commedia (Paradise I, 70).
  • 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).
  • In Canto XX of Ezra Pound's Cantos, the author stumbles when trying to translate to hapax legomenon "noigandres."
  • Throughout their entire canon, The Beatles use the word "Summersets" only once - and that occurs in the song "Being for the benefit of Mr Kite" on the legendary Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It is a Victorian variation on the word "somersaults" and was spotted on an ageing Circus poster by John Lennon

See also

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