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Word which only appears once in a given text or record
Rank-frequency plot for words in the novel Moby-Dick. About 44% of the distinct set of words in this novel, such as "matrimonial", occur only once, and so are hapax legomena (red). About 17%, such as "dexterity", appear twice (so-called dis legomena, in blue). Zipf's law predicts that the words in this plot should approximate a straight line with slope -1.
In corpus linguistics, a hapax legomenon ( also or ; pl. hapax legomena; sometimes abbreviated to hapax, plural
hapaxes) is a word or an expression that occurs only once within a context: either in the written record of an entire language, in the works of an author, or in a single text. The term is sometimes incorrectly used to describe a word that occurs in just one of an author's works but more than once in that particular work. Hapax legomenon is a transliteration of Greek? , meaning "being said once".
Hapax legomena are quite common, as predicted by Zipf's law, which states that the frequency of any word in a corpus is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. For large corpora, about 40% to 60% of the words are hapax legomena, and another 10% to 15% are dis legomena. Thus, in the Brown Corpus of American English, about half of the 50,000 distinct words are hapax legomena within that corpus.
Hapax legomenon refers to the appearance of a word or an expression in a body of text, not to either its origin or its prevalence in speech. It thus differs from a nonce word, which may never be recorded, may find currency and may be widely recorded, or may appear several times in the work which coins it, and so on.
Hapax legomena in ancient texts are usually difficult to decipher, since it is easier to infer meaning from multiple contexts than from just one. For example, many of the remaining undeciphered Mayan glyphs are hapax legomena, and Biblical (particularly Hebrew; see § Hebrew examples) hapax legomena sometimes pose problems in translation. Hapax legomena also pose challenges in natural language processing.
Some scholars consider Hapax legomena useful in determining the authorship of written works. P. N. Harrison, in The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles (1921) made hapax legomena popular among Bible scholars, when he argued that there are considerably more of them in the three Pastoral Epistles than in other Pauline Epistles. He argued that the number of hapax legomena in a putative author's corpus indicates his or her vocabulary and is characteristic of the author as an individual.
Harrison's theory has faded in significance due to a number of problems raised by other scholars. For example, in 1896, W. P. Workman found the following numbers of hapax legomena in each Pauline Epistle: Romans 113, I Cor. 110, II Cor. 99, Gal. 34, Eph. 43 Phil. 41, Col. 38, I Thess. 23, II Thess. 11, Philemon 5, I Tim. 82, II Tim. 53, Titus 33. At first glance, the last three totals (for the Pastoral Epistles) are not out of line with the others. To take account of the varying length of the epistles, Workman also calculated the average number of hapax legomena per page of the Greek text, which ranged from 3.6 to 13, as summarized in the diagram on the right. Although the Pastoral Epistles have more hapax legomena per page, Workman found the differences to be moderate in comparison to the variation among other Epistles. This was reinforced when Workman looked at several plays by Shakespeare, which showed similar variations (from 3.4 to 10.4 per page of Irving's one-volume edition), as summarized in the second diagram on the right.
Apart from author identity, there are several other factors that can explain the number of hapax legomena in a work:
text length: this directly affects the expected number and percentage of hapax legomena; the brevity of the Pastoral Epistles also makes any statistical analysis problematic.
text topic: if the author writes on different subjects, of course many subject-specific words will occur only in limited contexts.
text audience: if the author is writing to a peer rather than a student, or their spouse rather than their employer, again quite different vocabulary will appear.
time: over the course of years, both the language and an author's knowledge and use of language will change.
In the particular case of the Pastoral Epistles, all of these variables are quite different from those in the rest of the Pauline corpus, and hapax legomena are no longer widely accepted as strong indicators of authorship (although the authorship of the Pastorals is subject to debate on other grounds).
There are also subjective questions over whether two forms amount to "the same word": dog vs. dogs, clue vs. clueless, sign vs. signature; many other gray cases also arise. The Jewish Encyclopedia points out that, although there are 1,500 hapaxes in the Hebrew Bible, only about 400 are not obviously related to other attested word forms.
It would not be especially difficult for a forger to construct a work with any percentage of hapax legomena desired. However, it seems unlikely that forgers much before the 20th century would have conceived such a ploy, much less thought it worth the effort.
A final difficulty with the use of hapax legomena for authorship determination is that there is considerable variation among works known to be by a single author, and disparate authors often show similar values. In other words, hapax legomena are not a reliable indicator. Authorship studies now usually use a wide range of measures to look for patterns rather than relying upon single measurements.
Classical Chinese and Japanese literature contains many Chinese characters that feature only once in the corpus, and their meaning and pronunciation has often been lost. Known in Japanese as kogo (), literally "lonely characters", these can be considered a type of hapax legomenon. For example, the Classic of Poetry (c. 1000 BC) uses the character ? exactly once in the verse "?,?", and it was only through the discovery of a description by Guo Pu (276-324 AD) that the character could be associated with a specific type of ancient flute.
Indexy, in Bram Stoker's Dracula, used as an adjective to describe a situational state with no other further use in the language "'If that man had been an ordinary lunatic I would have taken my chance of trusting him; but he seems so mixed up with the Count in an indexy kind of way that I am afraid of doing anything wrong by helping his fads."
According to classical scholar Clyde Pharr, "the Iliad has 1097 hapax legomena, while the Odyssey has 868". Others have defined the term differently, however, and count as few as 303 in the Iliad and 191 in the Odyssey.
pana?rios (), ancient Greek for "very untimely", is one of many words that occur only once in the Iliad.
Epiousios, translated into English as ?daily? in the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:11 and Luke 11:3, occurs nowhere else in all of the known ancient Greek literature, and is thus a hapax legomenon in the strongest sense.
The word aphedr?n (?) "latrine" in the Greek New Testament occurs only twice, in Matthew 15:17 and Mark 7:19, but since it is widely considered that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a source, it may be regarded as a hapax legomenon. It was mistakenly translated as "bowel", until an inscription from the Lex de astynomis Pergamenorum ("Law of the town clerks of Pergamon") confirmed it meant "latrine".
Akut (? - fought), only appears once in the Hebrew Bible, in Psalm 95:10.
Atzei Gopher (- - Gopher wood) is mentioned once in the Bible, in Genesis 6:14, in the instruction to make Noah's ark "of gopher wood". Because of its single appearance, its literal meaning is lost. Gopher is simply a transliteration, although scholars tentatively suggest that the intended wood is cypress.
Zechuchith () is a hapax legomenon of Biblical Hebrew, found only in Job 28:17. The word derives from the root z-ch-h, meaning clear/transparent and refers to glass or crystal. In Modern Hebrew, it is used for "glass."
Lilith () occurs once in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah 34:14, which describes the desolation of Edom. It is translated several ways.
The verb attuia appears once in the Commedia (Purgatorio XXXIII, 48). The meaning is contested but usually interpreted as "darkens" or "impedes". Some manuscripts give the alternative hapax accuia instead.
Trasumanar is another hapax legomenon mentioned in the Commedia (Paradiso I, 70, translated as "Passing beyond the human" by Mandelbaum).
Ultrafilosofia, which means "beyond the philosophy" appears in Leopardi's Zibaldone (Zibaldone 114-115 - June, 7th 1820).
Deproeliantis, a participle of the word deproelior, which means "to fight fiercely" or "to struggle violently", appears only in line 11 of Horace's Ode 1.9.
Mactatu, singular ablative of mactatus, meaning "because of the killing". It occurs only in De rerum natura by Lucretius.
Mnemosynus, presumably meaning a keepsake or aide-memoire, appears only in Poem 12 of Catullus's Carmina.
Scortillum, a diminutive form meaning "little prostitute", occurs only in Poem 10 of Catullus's Carmina, line 3.
Terricrepo, an adjective apparently referring to a thunderous oratory method, occurs only in Book 8 of Augustine's Confessions.
Romanitas, a noun signifying "Romanism" or "the Roman way" or "the Roman manner", appears only in Tertullian's de Pallio.
Arepo is a proper name only found in the Sator squares. It is derived by spelling opera backwards.
Vytol () is a hapax legomenon of the known corpus of the Medieval Russian birch bark manuscripts. The word occurs in inscription no. 600 from Novgorod, dated ca. 1220-1240, in the context "[the] vytol has been caught" ( ). According to Andrey Zaliznyak, the word does not occur anywhere else, and its meaning is not known. Various interpretations, such as a personal name or the social status of a person, have been proposed.
The word quizzaciously was cited by Vsauce host Michael Stevens in 2015 as an example of a hapax legomenon, with Google only returning one search result for the word at the time. Since then, the term briefly became an internet meme, and now returns over 20,000 Google search results.
In videogame NetHack, "HAPAX LEGOMENON" is one of the possible randomized texts of a still unidentified type of magic scroll. Once read, the scroll casts its magic effect and then vanishes ("a thing said once") but possibly becoming henceforth identified (e.g. scroll of enchant armor, scroll of teleportation, etc.) for that gameplay.
"Hapax Legomenon" is the name of a wizard friend of Heden in the novel "Thief" by Matt Colville, the second book in his Ratcatchers series.
The concept of a hapax legomenon is the subject of Dinosaur Comics #3,744 from May 12, 2021.
^Steven J. DeRose. "A Statistical Analysis of Certain Linguistic Arguments Concerning the Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles." Honors thesis, Brown University, 1982; Terry L. Wilder. "A Brief Defense of the Pastoral Epistles' Authenticity". Midwestern Journal of Theology2.1 (Fall 2003), 38-4. (on-line)
^e.g. Richard Bauckham The Jewish world around the New Testament: collected essays I p431 2008: "a New Testament hapax, which occurs 19 times in Hermas. . ."
^John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament Edition, David C. Cook, 1983, page 860, ISBN0-88207-812-7.
^G. Klaffenbach, Lex de astynomis Pergamenorum (1954).
^The nature and function of water, baths, bathing, and hygiene from ... - Page 252 Cynthia Kosso, Anne Scott - 2009 "Günther Klaffenbach, "Die Astynomeninschrift von Pergamon," Abhandlungen der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. Klasse für Sprachen, Literatur und Kunst 6 (1953), 3-25 took charge of providing a full, yet strictly philological, commentary. "