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Hapax legomena

As some friends know, I’ve been obsessed with hapax legomena for some time, and I secretly plot an unwieldy pet project based on them. As anyone familiar with Middle Hebrew lexicography knowns, ἅπαξ λεγόμενον refers to utterances said only once, although more precisely it refers to words or expressions that register a single occurrence in a language corpus, and thus their meaning is difficult to establish with all certainty. In the context of Biblical textual scholarship, where the concept originated, it refers either to the whole set of 1300 words that occur only once in Biblical Hebrew, or to the more restricted set of about 400 words whose meaning cannot be derived from known roots.1 If one considers the definition of the former set, hapax are not that uncommon: they account, for instance, for 44% of Moby Dick, and their distribution is in fact predicted by Zipf’s law, which as I understand it simply states that there’s a roughly inversely proportional relation ruling the frequency of words, so any given word is half as likely to occur than the previous more frequent word. It’s easy to imagine the quickly plummeting statistical curve that ensues from such law. Under the second definition, as I understand it, hapax phenomena are much more contingent, distributed unequally across a corpus.

But what caught my attention today, while reading an intriguing piece of hypertextual literature, was the idea that, of course, different exegetical traditions built around specific linguistic corpora (say, Melville scholars or Medieval Rabbis) approach the problem of interpretation or translation of hapax legomena differently. As the mysterious Case Duckworth writes, while it’s conceivable that Mayan scholars leave a blank in their reading of an inscription, Biblical scholars cannot but translate hapax legomena. Critical interpretation might tolerate bracketed terms, but the superior call of theological consistency and public morality cannot plausibly presume tremor of intent on the part of the Godhead.

  1. A much more interesting —but, alas, impenetrable to me— discussion on Rabbinic scholar’s understanding of hapax legomena can be read here