Seward and hapax legomena

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Hapax legomena in Seward’s writing

This page begins with a general discussion of hapax legomena and their treatment in OED (see entry on our Glossary page). It then looks in more detail at hapax legomena used by (and recorded as being used by) Seward, listing them along with their accompanying OED quotations).

Hapax legomena in the OED, a subset of first quotations, form an unstable category. They involve at least three sets of problematic issues:

  1. how to identify words as unique examples of language use. Can the lexicographers be sure they wouldn’t find further examples if they read more widely, in texts written either earlier or later?
  2. how to decide whether or not individualistic locutions of this nature deserve entry in the OED
  3. how to label them

Here we consider the second and third of these sets.

What are hapax legomena, why do they deserve inclusion in OED, and how should they be labelled?

Right at the beginning of the Dictionary’s long period of compilation, the first editor Herbert Coleridge had questioned whether the lexicographers should be recording what he called ‘literary fungi’, i.e. coinages produced by adding prefixes or suffixes which he thought often correlated inversely with ‘the literary rank and standing of the author’, such as Nashe’s devilship, Sydney Smith’s foolometer, or Carlyle’s whiskerage. He also objected to ‘malformations’ from Greek and Latin (see Coleridge 1860-1). This was an interesting and difficult point, since the Philological Society’s 1859 Proposal had originally set out to record ‘every word’ in the English language, specifically stating, on hapax legomena (which they referred to by this term), that ‘we cannot refuse to admit words into the Dictionary which may not be sanctioned by the use of more than one writer (see last paragraph of p. 2, continuing to p. 3). At the same time, however, it was difficult to resist the notion that – for a variety of reasons – some words, especially those apparently used only once, were less eligible for entry into the Dictionary than others. (Translated from the Greek, hapax legomenon means ‘spoken once’.)

The Philological Society discussed the question in detail in a meeting of 1860, and decided that all the specific examples mentioned by Coleridge should be included – as indeed they were.

By the time that the first instalment of the Dictionary was published in 1884, the chief editor James Murray had coined an English term to describe one-off usages, or words made up ‘for the nonce’: viz., nonce-word. This was briefly treated in ‘General Explanations‘ (OED vol 1, 1888, p. xx), and the category was distinguished from words which were merely ‘rare’:

Here also [i.e. amongst the labels applied to a word] is added, when applicable, the epithet rare, with -1, or -0, indicating that only one, or no actual instance of the use of the word in context is known to us. Words apparently employed only for the nonce, are, when inserted in the Dictionary, marked nonce-wd.

‘General Explanations’, OED vol 1, 1888, p. xx

The distinction between ‘rare’ words and ‘nonce-words’ is not entirely transparent. What is the difference between a rare word found once only, and a nonce word? Apparently, the lexicographer’s intuition that a nonce word has been made up for the nonce, i.e. for a specific occasion – and that this occasion will not recur. Such a criterion looks difficult to apply objectively and consistently. Nevertheless, the term was used straightaway, for example to label a number of the words beginning with the letter A (abricotine, accentuality, a-christism, and others).

But including such words clearly added both to the length of the Dictionary and to the time it was taking to edit it. This was a matter of great concern to the publishers, Oxford University Press. Hapax legomena came under particular attack in 1896, when the OUP Delegates told Murray that ‘words coined for the nonce can hardly be worth recording unless the writer’s authority is so great as to lead to the permanent adoption of any word he uses’. One of the words picked out as unnecessary was again foolometer.1

One can see the Delegates’ point. The OED exists mainly to chart the history and development of the language. By definition, a nonce-usage or hapax legomenon has not contributed to the development of the language, since otherwise it would not have been used just ‘for the nonce’: if the expression had been found useful by the rest of the language community – perhaps because it was expressive, witty, filled a gap no other word filled, or some other reason – then other people would have taken it up and it would be evidenced in other texts. (Sometimes a particular term, known to be the creation of a particular writer, is taken up by other language users, but with specific reference to its original use: Austen’s noonshine, for example, discussed in our Glossary entry for hapax legomenon).

So the case for inclusion of a hapax legomenon in OED must rest on other grounds than the locution’s demonstrable influence on the language. These grounds might be that the coinage occurs in a text of cultural importance that many language users will encounter, and whose meaning, etymology, etc. they will therefore want information on; or that the usage has some other intrinsic value. If the latter, what exactly might that value be? For example, does the coinage demonstrate the language’s capacity for neologism in a way that is interesting and/or aesthetically pleasing and/or potentially replicable by other language users?

No statement on the treatment of hapax legonoma, whether past or present, has so far been made by the OED3 revisers. It is striking, however, that one of the results of the OED3 revision to date is that usages previously represented by the Dictionary as unique are now being shown to have been used by other speakers too – e.g. James Joyce’s plotch (see further Brewer 2010a: 123).

In general, it seems that the presence or absence of individual hapax legomena in the OED, other than those of the very best known writers, is down to chance rather than to any consistently enacted policy. Lynda Mugglestone’s book Lost for Words (2005) is full of examples of hapax legomena that (unlike foolometer) were cut out of OED1, at proof stage, owing to a variety of non-linguistic reasons – available space on the page, preferential treatment for some authors over others, particular financial crises, differences of opinion between editors. Similarly, R. W. Burchfield, the editor of the 20th-century Supplement, describes several times how his inclusion of such terms was often dependent on the enthusiasms of particular readers (see text quoted at foot of EOED’s page on Indexes and inconsistencies).


One of the examples Mugglestone gives of hapax legomena excised at the last minute from OED1 is Anna Seward’s forestian, which occurred in a letter to Miss Eleanor Ponsonby (one of the Llangollen Ladies) written in 1796. Here Seward praised the ‘chaste fidelities’ of Francis Mundy’s poem Needwood Forest: ‘the images so original, and so truly forestian, if I may be allowed the verbal coinage, make me consider it as the first entirely local poem in our language’ (Constable 1811: vol. 4, p. 168; cf. Mugglestone 2005: 100).

As it happens, the word has been used by others since Seward (as can be seen by typing it into Google), though the fact that Seward herself acknowledges the coinage might appear to make its case for inclusion less secure (if Seward believed she was making the word up, and the OED1 editors knew of no other example, why would they have gone to the trouble of including a demonstrably un-influential word by a comparatively undistinguished author?). OED1 included two other hapax by Seward which she similarly identified as coinages: hushy and illocal (see numbers 12 and 13 in list below).

It is comparatively easy, simply by browsing through Seward’s letters, to discover words absent from the OED which look just as deserving as those that got in: e.g.

  • Ugolino (used attributively): ‘There, in her trustful days, I used to behold her…in broad attitude, with contracted lips, wide eyes, and Ugolino brow’ (Constable 1811: vol. 5, p. 11; 1797). (Tristful is sparsely illustrated in OED and this example would be useful for that entry too.)
  • moon-calf (adj.): ‘To Shakespeare! who when he had exhausted real creation, drew imaginary existence, with its enchanters, witches, ghosts, moon-calf monsters, and dapper elves’ (Constable 1811: vol. 5, p. 14). Adjectival use of moon-calf is not included in OED2 or OED3 (draft revision June 2008). Curiously, OED1 cited the word dun as a hapax legomenon from the same letter (see number 3 below)

– or indeed forestian, as above. The complete list of 44 items that did get into OED1 is given below in alphabetical order; all but one (reverseless) occur in her letters (see Seward’s lexically innovative letters). NB it seems that only one Seward quotation, for learned, was added by Burchfield in the 20th-century Supplement. By contrast, he added c.350 quotations from the much better known Austen – though neither of these 19th-century authors was ostensibly eligible for inclusion in his work, which was intended to update the OED with new words and usages.

Seward’s hapax legomena vary considerably in register and character. Some look like genuine one-off usages and coinages, often delightfully vivid and communicative (pen-phobia, mulism) though potentially replicable. Others, while clearly ad hoc, appear less eccentric (girlism or grandmotherism). In still other cases it is hard to believe that Seward is sole user; a good example is drop-bolt (no. 2 in the list below), which can be found, if rarely, in other contemporary texts (e.g. Annual Register of 1762, p. 363, identified by ECCO search) and is still – as searches in Google attest – in current use today.

OED1’s method of treatment also varies considerably:

  • 20 terms are labelled nonce
  • 12 terms are labelled rare
  • 4 terms are labelled rare-1
  • 8 terms are unlabelled

But these labels (or their absence) do not correlate consistently with what appears to be their status; for example prosifier is unlabelled. Consistency of labelling was one of the most difficult things for the first edition of OED to achieve (see Brewer 2007b: references cited in index on p. 326).

The special character of hapax legomena make it particularly interesting to see what OED3 will do with such usages as they rewrite the first edition. Thirteen of Seward’s apparently unique words or senses have now been revised (numbers 16-28 below), and nearly all have retained this status; the four exceptions are miserism, numbskullism, open-housed, prosifier. But even OED3 has not been consistent in its labelling:

  • numbskullism, for example, is now evidenced with two quotations and open-housed with three, but while OED3 labels the latter ‘rare‘ it applies no label to numbskullism
  • in revising mulism OED3 has dropped the label ‘nonce-wd’ but added no further quotation, providing no evidence or explanation as to why its judgement on the word’s status has changed.

Seward’s hapax legomena as recorded in OED

All but one of Seward’s uniquely attested words or usages occur in Seward’s letters; the exception is reverseless, number 29 below, from one of her paraphrased Horatian odes (the poem is collected in her posthumous works, Scott 1810: vol. 3, p. 251).

Note: In the list below, an asterisk indicates a hapax legomenon identified by manual searching of Seward’s 237 quotations in OED2, while unasterisked terms are those identified by checking through the OED2 electronic search results for ‘first cited author’; Seward is cited variously as ‘A. Seward’, ‘Anna Seward’, and ‘Miss Seward’. OED labels/definitions etc. are given in single quotation marks. The text and attribution of the Seward quotation is copied and pasted from OED2 as represented on OED Online. EOED comments, if any, are added in square brackets.

Seward Table 7: Hapax legomena included in OED1

  1. crescent, v. ( ‘nonce-wd2. To border or surround crescent-wise’): a1809 MISS SEWARD Lett. VI. 195 (T.) A dark wood crescents more than half the lawn….
  2. drop-bolt (sense 1: ‘A bolt constructed so as to drop into a socket’): 1786 A. SEWARD Lett. I. 225, I lifted the drop-bolt.
  3. *dun, a. (sense 2: ‘More vaguely: Dark, dusky (from absence of light); murky, gloomy’ – only figurative example): 1797 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) V. 11 Frowning like herself, in dun cogitation.
  4. *dupism (s.v. dupe): 1798 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) V. 171 That single instance of dupism.
  5. *floret (sense 2: ‘A small flower, a floweret’; Seward’s is the only figurative example): 1786 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) I. 150, I may one day present you with my poetic florets.
  6. girlism (‘nonce-wd…Girls, or their characteristics, collectively’): 1788 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) II. 186 The prejudices of girlism. 1795 Ibid. IV. 70 With her sister, Miss Bowater, I passed some of the sprightly days of girlism.
  7. *grandmotherism: 1806 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 324 The apparent grandmotherism seems now reversed between us.
  8. *hoar-frost (attributive use): 1804 A. SEWARD Mem. Darwin 323 A fine picture of an hoar-frost landscape.
  9. impersonization (s.v. impersonize; ‘the action of personifying; impersonation’): 1796 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) IV. 192 Those lines in the centre, which impersonization of winter. 1797 Ibid. 306 Dr. Darwin’s impersonization of that death-breathing gale, in the Botanic Garden.
  10. *horn cattle (= horned cattle, s.v. horn, n., sense 30): 1793 MISS SEWARD Lett. (1811) III. 257 Beauties of horn-cattle.
  11. hostilize (‘rare…To render hostile; to cause to be an enemy’): 1794 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) III. 376 The powers already hostilized against an impious nation.
  12. hushy (‘That is characterized by the sound hush’): 1803 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 97 The hushy sound (if I may be allowed to coin that epithet) of the sea~shore.
  13. *illocal, a. (sense 2: ‘Out of place, misplaced. Obs. nonce-use.‘): 1804 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 180 Not to be considered as impertinent, or (if I may be allowed to coin a word, which is lawfully compounded) illocal.
  14. inefficience (‘Obs. rare‘): 1797 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) IV. 377 What does it prove but the inefficience of an inert majority, opposed to the active struggles of a party, less numerous by two-thirds?
  15. intransfusible (‘rare…That cannot be transfused’): 1804 A. SEWARD Mem. Darwin 209 The perhaps intransfusable felicities of verbal expression.
  16. *maidenish (used as combinatorial form): 1789 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) II. 250 But, Lord! what a pale, maidenish-looking animal for a voluptuary! [OED3 draft revision September 2009 retains as only example and now labels ‘Obs. rare‘]
  17. *mildewer (from verb mildew): 1807 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 389 The a noted mildewer on the profits of the noblest verse. [OED3 draft revision June 2008 retains as only example and now labels ‘Obs. rare‘]
  18. miserism (‘rare-1…Miserliness’): 1798 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) V. 155 Mr Newton has put an immense sponge upon Dr Falconer’s reproach to his miserism. [OED3 draft revision June 2002 retains Seward as first example but has found two other quotations, dated 1871 and 2001, and changed the label to ‘rare‘]
  19. moleism (s.v. mole, n.2: ‘nonce-wd., mole-like character’): 1787 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) I. 378 Darwin is a mole to Milton, and that you will say is indeed a molism. 1796 Ibid. IV. 189 She, not aware of his moleism, relied upon it that all was well. [OED3 draft revision September 2009 retains these two quotations from Seward as sole attestation to the word]
  20. mulism (‘nonce-wd‘): 1798 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) V. 167 It was one of her little mulisms to fancy and assert that she could not understand verse. [OED3 draft revision March 2003 retains as sole quotation for this sense, drops the label ‘nonce-wd‘, adds the label ‘Obs.‘, and provides no further comment]
  21. *numbskullism: 1806 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 268 His reminiscences familiarize us with the interior of the court of George the First and Second, and display, in full light, the numskullism of both those regal personages. [OED3 draft revision September 2009 retains as first example and has only found one other, dated 2000. Despite this apparent rarety of use it applies no label, however (contrast open-housed below)]
  22. *open-housed (s.v. open, a., sense 22): 1804 A. SEWARD Mem. Darwin 6 *Open-housed hospitality. [OED3 draft revision September 2003 retains as first quotation but has found two other quotations, dated 1870 and 2001. It labels the use ‘now rare‘]
  23. *pancheon (sense b: ‘Humorously used for “paunch”‘): 1804 A. SEWARD Mem. Darwin 142 Lakes of milk ran curdling into whey, within the ebon concave of their [cats’] pancheons. [OED3 draft revision March 2009 retains as only example and labels ‘Obs. rare‘]
  24. *pen-phobia (s.v. -phobia): 1803 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 94 He is a very laconic personage, and has upon him the penphobia. [remains only example of term in OED3 draft revision December 2008 and has been elevated to first quotation in the entry]
  25. *pin-faith, a. (s.v. pin, v., sense 12: ‘Comb., as pin-faith a., that “pins one’s faith” on something…implicitly believing or credulous’): 1800 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) V. 316 The pin-faith multitude, which never thinks for itself. [OED3 draft revision March 2009 elevates to separate entry and labels ‘Obs. nonce-wd.‘]
  26. *prosifier (s.v. prosify): 1788 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) II. 12 The that’s, the which’s, the who’s, and the whom’s, are prosefiers,..injurious to the melody of verse…. [OED3 draft revision June 2007 retains as first quotation but has found three subsequent quotations, from 1970 on. No label]
  27. quizzity (‘rare-1…Oddity’): 1788 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) II. 91 His height and proportion mighty slender..nor are his sharp features..a whit behind them in quizzity. [OED3 draft revision June 2008 keeps as hapax legomenon and adds ‘Obs.‘ label; it also compares, in square brackets, ‘[1805 W. IOOR Independence IV. 52 Give me leave to introduce to your notice, Sir Strutabout Talkbig, of Quizzity Hall.]’]
  28. re-frenzy: 1796 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) IV. 275 What a wonderful performance is Mr. Burke’s late attempt to re-frenzy the nation! [remains a hapax legomenon in OED3 draft revision September 2009, which adds label ‘Obs.‘]
  29. reverseless: (‘rare‘): 1796 A. SEWARD To Thomas Erskine xi, The urn, whence Fate Throws her pale edicts in reverseless doom!
  30. rosiery (‘irreg. variant of ROSERY’): 1791 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) III. 81 The rosiery will not, I trust, have exhausted all its bloom and fragrance..before I reach you.
  31. similarize (‘rare-1‘): 1806 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 304 The twenty-fourth canto opens with a description of hoar-frost similarized to snow.
  32. *sirenic (sense 2: ‘Of persons: Sweet-singing’): 1797 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) IV. 393 Nor less was he charmed with the vocal duetts and trios of our syrenic friends.
  33. squiral (‘rare…Of or belonging to, befitting, a squire; squirely’): 1791 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) III. 99 The whole wide expanse is dotted over by white rough-cast cottages, and here and there a village-spire and squiral chateau. 1804 Ibid. VI. 198 The residence of squiral opulence….
  34. *squiress, v. (‘to play the squiress. rare-1‘): 1786 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) I. 109 Your old acquaintance,..who married a Warwickshire squire,..squiresses it with much loquacious importance.
  35. *sylphize: 1802 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 27 The Gothic mythology, demonized by the elder bards of Caledonia, sylphized by Shakespeare, and the British poets.
  36. technicism (‘A technical term or expression, a technicality’): 1799 A. SEWARD Lett. (1821) V. 263 Bewildered in a maze of scholastic technicisms.
  37. *terrifics (s.v. terrific, a. (n.): ‘Terrific things’): 1798 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) V. 174 To exhibit, among his mock-terrifics, some pictures that have the genuine grandeur of horror.
  38. umpireism (‘rare-1…Umpirage’): 1792 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) III. 150 If the umpireism of dispassionate examination is to be rejected, and the ardours of zeal confided in implicitly.
  39. underdraw (‘To mark by lines drawn underneath’): 1799 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) V. 195 The motto you will find underdrawn in the lines which suggested my design.
  40. ungentlewomanlike: 1789 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) II. 295 Vulgarisms, of most ungentlewomanlike choice, and most unscholar-like frequency.
  41. unpartaken: 1807 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) VI. 379 The single solitary Wight, who, in every one of these periodical olios, possesses his separate and un~partaken department.
  42. unritual: 1791 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) III. 80 The quiet dispassionate simplicity of unritual devotion.
  43. *verbalism (s.v. section b: ‘collect. Words, phrasing’): 1800 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) V. 285 It is not amongst our modern songs that the musical composer is to look for his happiest verbalism.
  44. *vulgar-sounding: 1797 A. SEWARD Lett. (1811) IV. 302 His vulgar-sounding word, beleaguered, once used in the Paradise Lost, offends us continually in this new epic.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. See Mugglestone 2005: 99 and Brewer 2007b: 116.