Hapax legomenon

Well kids, my brilliant heresy launches in only eight days, and i think it’s time for another brief lesson in textual criticism as relates to the Budge-Nuzzard.

You might have noticed a comment left on my previous post. It was a single word: “Urblementary!” This comment’s author is uniquely qualified to make such a judgment. And the judgment he chose to make made me laugh for two different reasons, one of which i will explain to you.

Urblementary is a word which occurs in the original Budge-Nuzzard exactly once. In textual criticism, this is what is called a hapax legomenon, which means “a word used only once.” This might mean once in a particular text, or even in an entire language. Handily, the Budge-Nuzzard is the only (to my knowledge) surviving text written in the glorious tongue of Weem-Ti (Weench), so urblementary qualifies, however critics (me) would like to dice that definition.

Hapaxes are a way for an ancient author to troll his/her modern reader. It’s notoriously tricky to figure out exactly what a hapax is meant to convey, because there’s no context outside the passage at hand to help tease out shades of meaning. The lexicons we now have for Hebrew, for example, are all the results of different scholarly word-studies. They’re dictionaries of ancient words, not ancient dictionaries. For common words, there’s no trouble here; read a variety of texts, which use a given word in a variety of contexts, and the meaning becomes pretty clear. But when you’ve only got one instance, how do you know you’re getting it right? A great example of this can be found in Amos 7:7-9. For years translators had to take a wild stab in the dark on one word in this section. They went with “plumb-line,” because they had no idea what the word meant but that translation made sense of the imagery in the passage—Amos was standing next to a wall, and G-d was about to judge Israel for not lining up with His standards.

Sometimes, related languages or dialects can help. Hebrew is one of a whole family of Semitic languages. If you come across a Hebrew hapax, you might look to Ugaritic or Akkadian to see whether a similar word appears in that language, and if it does, this can help enormously. In the above example from Amos, the word previously translated “plumb-line” turned out to be an Akkadian loanword which means “tin.” (Amos was being extremely snarky here, not only using a trollsome hapax but using imagery that mocked the “sturdy” walls of Samaria, which would surely withstand any enemy’s attack, even if G-d sent them. Get this: Tin makes terrible walls.)

Unfortunately, i don’t know of any cognate language for Weench.

When you’ve got neither multiple uses of a word nor a cognate in a related dialect, the best tool you’ve got is context. We’ve got to do our best, like past generations of Amos scholars did. So, let’s look at the context for our Weench hapax.

As my plodden journey onward goes, I have, in the night I fear, gained a companion, though boon or ill I cannot say. In darkness, the moon, so gibbous and bloated, my way did brightly light. And then I felt upon my nape a gazing. Hideous it was, and urblementary. I hurled my eyes about to see what eyes I felt aseeing me, but no eye spying did I see. I bid my feet plod on, and bid such repellent gazing be flushed in whole from my upper head. My feet heeded well. My upper head, however, cast itself in rebellious form and tormented me with suspicion and worry. Oh, how then I loathed my treacherous head!

The wording here—“though boon or ill i cannot say”—suggests to me an allusion from earlier in the Budge-Nuzzard, whether intentional or subconscious. i present to you this clue:

I was awakened this morning by a strange gnawing sensation in my lower left foot. My first thought was that the end had come sooner than I had foreseen and I was being slowly consumed by my wicked progeny. I was fairly wrong. The source of the gnawing, I discovered, was a small rotund Englishman in a shiny black bowler (and little else!). This odd little man had the greater portion of my lower left foot firmly seated in his mouth and was patiently gnawing away at it as if it were no more than a cup of afternoon tea.

“Good Heavens!” I said, and the gnawing Englishman kindly slipped my lower left foot out of his mouth and dried it with his handkerchief in a most gentlemanly fashion.

“Yes, quite,” he replied, then promptly disappeared leaving no sign at all of his former presence, other than the merest smell of wet hanky.

I knew at once that this was no coincidence. This was an omen. Whether ill or otherwise I couldn’t guess. I shall have to contact the Samurai. He will know what to do.

“Though boon or ill I cannot say.” “Whether ill or otherwise I couldn’t guess.” Hrrmm.

Can we then suppose that the word urblementary reflects the uncertainty and apprehension of a portent which cannot yet be interpreted, and thereby torments one’s upper head? Note also that the earlier passage is the first canonical appearance of—no. i shall not name him. Spoilers!

Given that i’ve been stalking Pete Peterson for over a year and a half now, this word choice seems fair. He has publicly said that he looks forward to my heresy “with a great and terrible anticipation.” What horrors or insights will he see in my words? And am i a boon or ill companion? Well. i guess we’ll find out on November 25.

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