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A.Word.A.Day--hapax legomenon

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hapax legomenon (HAY-paks li-GOM-uh-non) noun, plural hapax legomena

A word or form that has only one recorded use.

[From Greek hapax (once) + legomenon, from legein (to say).]

"Linda Tripp, the faithless friend, says to Monica Lewinsky about the President, `Right now I think he's a schwonk.' This qualifies as what biblical exegetes call a hapax legomenon, the only known use in print, which makes it difficult to define." William Safire, Where's the Poetry?, The New York Times, Nov 1, 1998.

"The entire Song of Songs is a hapax legomenon of its own, the Blochs say. It is unique in both the Old and New Testaments because it leaves out God entirely. It never mentions Israel as a people or a nation. It is free of any talk of sin. And it is the only surviving example of secular love poetry from ancient Israel. Why such a romantic poem found its way into the biblical canon is something of a mystery." Laurie Goodstein, Translators Find Sensuality in Bible's `Song of Songs', The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb 21, 1998.

Today when we spell the word "catalog" instead of "catalogue" we can thank a crotchety, humorless man for saving the wear on our fingers, not to mention savings on paper and those obscenely expensive inkjet printer cartridges. Oct 16 marks the birth anniversary of Noah Webster (1758-1843), who compiled the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, the first authoritative lexicon of American English.

Webster believed in establishing cultural independence from Britain and as such he emphasized a distinct American spelling and pronunciation. His dictionary listed various unusual and shortened spellings of the words. He would have hardly imagined how the tide would turn one day. According to reports, more British and Australian children spell "color" instead of "colour", for example. Webster's suggestion of using "tung" instead of "tongue" didn't stick, though. As he said, "the process of a living language is like the motion of a broad river which flows with a slow, silent, irresistible current."

Today Webster's name is synonymous with dictionaries and the date of his birth is observed as Dictionary Day. In his honor, this week we'll present words about words. Happy Dictionary Day! -Anu


There are two kinds of fool. One says, "This is old, and therefore good." And one says, "This is new, and therefore better." -John Brunner, science fiction writer (1934-1995)

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