Tuesday, March 30, 2010
By Steven L. Taylor

The most awesome phrase of the day is “one big hapax legomenon.”

The phrase in question is deployed in the following NPR piece on the Pledge of Allegiance:  I Pledge Allegiance To Linguistic Obfuscation:

In fact, "pledge allegiance" is what linguists call a hapax legomenon, or hapax for short — an expression that only occurs in a single place in the language, like wardrobe malfunction, Corinthian leather or satisfactual.

The piece notes that, on balance, the only place many of the phrases in the Pledge are used is in the in the Pledge itself, which ultimately obscures the meaning of the words because there is not reference point to the phrases in the broader language.

Indeed, I noted something along these lines (although without a cool term to describe it) back in a 2005 post, which was about the argument over the phrase “under God” and my position was, as a general matter, that most kids give the words of the Pledge a first thought (let alone a second one).

At any rate, the piece is definitely worth a read.

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5 Responses to “One Big Hapax Legomenon”

  1. Richard Scott Nokes Says:

    While the definition they give is almost correct, not one of the examples is a true hapax legomenon. Indeed, it’s hard to have a true hapax legomenon in a living language. They’ve tried to make it correct by saying it’s an expression (generally it’s a single word), and then by streeeeetching what we mean by a single use in the corpus.

    Here’s a simple test — if it’s easy to translate (as all of the above terms are), it’s NOT a hapax legomenon, because in most cases we aren’t even 100% sure what they mean.

    Aside from their examples, it’s just not true. I’ve heard the phrase “to pledge allegiance” in all sorts of other contexts, many not even American.

  2. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Ah well, it still sounds cool (and I can see your point, I think).

  3. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Out of curiosity, what would be an actual example?

  4. Chris Lawrence Says:

    The Texas flag pledge, for one: “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”

    Probably not the type of example you were looking for, however :)

  5. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    I had forgotten that there was a Texas pledge.

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