Hapax What?

One of my favourite literary terms that I learned when I was studying English at university in the 1970s and 1980s was hapax legomenon, which in literary studies generally refers to the literally unique use of a word in a particular context, oeuvre, corpus, and so on. I first came upon it in Shakespeare studies: scholars would refer to a word as being “hapax legonemon in Shakespeare.” Sometimes they are blatantly esoteric words which you may never have heard of — like honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labour’s Lost (V, i). And sometimes they are just words which we may recognize as common now but which were evidentally rarer 400 years ago, or just not words which Shakespeare happened to use in his writing. For example, the use of predict as a noun meaning prediction is not only a hapax in Shakespeare, but doesn’t appear much (or at all) elsewhere in any other writer (it’s in Sonnet 14), according to the OED.

It may be stretching the meaning of hapax legomena a bit, but one of my favourite ones in Johnson is in the specific corpus of his letters. As anyone knows who has read just even a couple of them, or seen his signature elsewhere, the vast majority of his signatures are “Sam: Johnson”. In fact, using Bruce Redford’s edition of several hundred surviving letters, there are only six of the entire total that are signed in some other way:

  • Saml: Johnson : July 9, 1752 (vol. 1, pp. 62-64); uncertain date (vol. 5, pp. 19-21)
  • S.J. : Feb. 7, 1755 (vol. 1, pp. 94-97; the letter to Chesterfield)
  • Samuel Johnson : Feb. 12, 1767 (vol. 1, pp. 278-279); July 22, 1782 (vol. 4, p. 61); April 19, 1783 (vol. 3, pp. 129-131)

It’s interesting to note that the letter signed with the least amount of information and the least indication of personal engagement – just a spare “S.J.” – is the now-infamous letter to Lord Chesterfield, in which Johnson is tersely venting his dislike and disrespect for the Lord’s actions (or, more accurately, inactions).

Ergo, “S.J.” is hapax legonemon as a signature in the letters of Johnson.

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