Rare word alert – hapax legomenon

hapax legomenon – hä-ˌpäks-, -nən\li-ˈgä-mə-ˌnän :  A word or form occurring only once in a document or corpus

But more than just curiosities, hapax legomena aren’t strange statistical flukes. Not only are they more common than we might realize, but they are predicted from certain mathematical rules of language. Hapax legomena must exist as long as Zipf’s Law holds true. Developed by George Kingsley Zipf, Zipf’s Law is a simple mathematical rule that states that a word’s frequency is inversely proportional to its rank in frequency.  – Wired magazine

I want to delve into the statistical distribution of words found in two major works of English literature, each of frightening length and scope, whose importance was discovered at roughly the same period of time. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: or, the Whale and James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.  Both of them claimed limelight in the 1920s. Each of the stories has a hero, of sorts. Ishmael is the hero of doomed, vengeful whale hunt aboard Ahab’s Pequod, sailing from Nantucket, a saga about an 18th century event retold for a 19th century public, not received with acclaim until the 20th century. A doomed whale hunt, made heroic by simply surviving to tell the tale.

In Joyce’s modernist tale, it is the ordinary citizen who is the hero. We are all heroes, our lives are epic sagas told in small moments spilling with life, love and memory. Inside each of our mundane, seemingly unremarkable lives are entire universes of emotion and wild thoughts to explore and visit again, whirling like a maelstrom within our bodies. Exploration of the sensual sentient living form Bloom occupies on his day in Dublin is conducted with astonishing complexity and acuity of verve.  Joyce playfully pins the progress of the novel to the sections of Odysseus’s adventure on his long way back home to Penelope.  You feel as though you are inside Bloom’s head experiencing his thoughts as they pass through his silly mind. The women of Ulysses draw Bloom to life.

In Moby Dick, Melville was pursuing not a reunion with the feminine so much as an obliteration of the masculine, annihilation – and yet, with each successive chapter, there is an elastic sort of zinger thrown on at the end. It’s the equivalent of a punchline. This is, it seems to suggest, even in its most dark and abyssmal probings of human loneliness and indeterminate longing for god-knows-what in an empty and cruel cosmos, that the epic whale hunt is still a fish tale, likely told by a drunkard in a tavern by the sea, aye. Heckuva skrimshander, Ishy.

Writers who can sustain a story for such gross, monstrous periods of time –  are they weirdos, or are they geniuses? Magicians? Chef don’t judge.  How many words do they use that they used in no other works by any other author? By filling epic volumes of blank page with a populace of pet words singular to their voice, they run the risk of sounding more like other writers the more they write. But, seemingly in spite of this, Joyce and Melville manage to use THOUSANDS of words not found anywhere else in the English language.

Shakespeare just made words up. He made up over six hundred words. And the longest hapax legomenon comprised of alternating vowels and consonants in the English language is uttered by Costard, a total idiot character  in one of early plays, Love’s Labor Lost. Fancy words don’t necessarily mean bright ideas, but more often, a person’s desire to be regarded as intelligent makes him/her/shim prone to juggling some jawbreakers. I’m as guilty as not. I likes me some fancy words. In fact, I consider myself a fan, but I’d rather think a bunch and say a little than say a lot and think a little about my soft and flabby middle or shining up my fiddle or toying with some riddles while heating my griddle while I did a little jiggle in my new pair of bi-piddles, or paddles, as it were if’n I were to waddle to the water and barter for a charter on a creaky old boat without a guide.

In any case, in Moby-Dick, you  end up in the drink, and in Ulysses, Bloom ends up in the pink. After the drink. I just mention Shakespeare because Melville basically read the entire collection of old Bloody’s works and the KJ Bible before writing that amazing whale of a story. And Ulysses is a reflection of the life of Odysseus in  the Odyssey. Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), is a sort of complete Womb to the Tomb epic pain in the ass for women. But, for Joyce, women are in fact the heroic force that bring stupid Blooms home. And for Melville, abandoning the book, killing Ahab the character might have been a personal effort to save his own neglected family and spouse from more of his lunatic, drunken rages. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it was bad. I don’t think Melville hated anything more than an empty page. The page is The White Whale. So, anyways, like…

Essentially, the hero myth is so appealing is because it makes of the slavish reality of the citizenry a noble quest, in that once an arduous errand (job) is carried out(career), he/she shall be rewarded with treasures that would meanwhile escape the hand grasping the plow, the sword, the pen. Honorificabilitudinitatibus. And I’m all, like, whatever.

So, much of the quest focuses on defeating things which may diminish character. The idea is to build oneself towards becoming an individual worthy of the  “unique quest”. Sort of like finding a niche job, like getting a PhD in linguistics or Bushido arboreal transportation logistics. Immortality is, no less and no more, the treasure of the gods, and their quest is to rule wisely their treasured milieu. This great chain of events which bind people to higher callings, as it were, is an abstract construct, so can be directed from one’s own will. Yet, we are social creatures, and each has within us a vision and/or another competing vision, or more, and moreover, a sense of purpose, or perhaps by proxy, a conviction or anxiety of lack of purpose. Or maybe not.

Maybe each life, each moment  is without needful context within the abstracted notions of the greasy brains of shod apes. Dolphins, for example, think about the future. I wonder if their recent gathering in San Diego was planned, or was it a spontaneous event, an emergent cetacean protocol brought on by something we were  meant to understand. Seven miles of dolphins. How many thousands? A hundred? Who knows? They do. Dolphins can call each other by name. They did this last year, too.

It’s funny that we don’t name ourselves. Do dolphins name themselves? But, through our actions, we may define what our name means. That is also the quest, to be reborn in the hearts of humanity. In its eternal embrace, we create memorable tales of fantastic struggles shared by all. We name our illusions, and put them into play much in the way one would put into play elements of a game signifying the occurrence of a great event. Native Americans used lacrosse and other games to play upon the earth great dramas which had caught up the actions of people and spirits. Elements of the landscape became symbolic of certain elements of history. Knowing history enriched the game play. Knowing the landscape helped characterize the retelling of historic events. The abstracted tale became a palimpsest mapped upon the physical territory of ancestral origin…

And then games collide, and nations, too. Ridiculous.

I awoke from a dream about a gathering of whales last week, looked at the news on my internets and saw a story about a gathering of dolphins. The dream I had was a fever dream, and because of the lucidity of such a dream state, I was – sick and miserable, yes – able to go very deeply into my dream state and resolve a series of problems I’d experienced trying to put together a novel last year. When I awoke, it was fresh on my tongue like I’d just tasted something rare and wonderful. I quickly rewrote the synopsis of the story with some notes on the side, listed some hapax legomena I wanted to use to dizzy the reader, and, despite the chills and the wracking pain and weakness, knew that I’d somehow found a breakthrough and felt utterly fantastic about such strange luck.

Although power laws of the Zipf type have been used by many workers to fit rank distributions in different fields like in economy, geophysics, genetics, soft-matter, networks, etc. these fits usually fail at the tail. Some distributions have been proposed to solve the problem, but unfortunately they do not fit at the same time the body and the tail of the distribution. We show that many different data in rank laws, like in granular materials, codons, author impact in scientific journal, etc. can be very well fitted by the integrand of a beta function (that we call beta-like function). Then we propose that such universality can be due to the fact that systems made from many subsystems or choices, present stretched exponential frequency-rank functions which qualitatively and quantitatively are well fitted with the beta-like function distribution in the limit of many random variables. We give a plausibility argument for this observation by transforming the problem into an algebraic one: finding the rank of successive products of numbers, which is basically a multinomial process. From a physical point of view, the observed behavior at the tail seems to be related with the onset of different mechanisms that are dominant at different scales, providing crossovers and finite size effects.

This is taken from jibber jabber about Zipf’s law, a fun little math thing. Zipf’s assertion was:

that neither speakers nor hearers using a given language want to work any harder than necessary to reach understanding, and the process that results in approximately equal distribution of effort leads to the observed Zipf distribution –   from Wikipedia

A whole lot of blather. Let’s take a look at a comparison of words used in two crazy big books: James Joyce’s Ulysses and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or The Whale. 

First, Melville’s epic:


And now, let’s take a look at Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness inversion of the epic, where the entire incredible story takes place in one single day while it follows Bloom, some yob, on his errands about town, and he has a wank in a park. Sorry, Penelope, time’s a wastin’.


It’s basically the same principle illustrated. Words don’t come around for just any old mouths, for any old reason. Most people don’t get deep enough into the language, into their dreams and the fancy abyss of metatexts spawning infinite variations like Mandlebrot freakishness. But with James and Melville, they went really, really deep. It has something to do with the vagaries of prodigious memory. Sometimes, a great adventure or great love for someone may kindle a passion that sweeps all memory before it like a ravenous solar fire, consuming and transforming anything within its field of affect. And so on.

Words are rare because deeds are rare, and visions rarer that move me.

These are barren tasks, too hard to keep,
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep! (1.1.48) –

He hath not fed of the dainties that are bred in a book;
he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink. (4.2.25)

Shakespeare, Love’s Labor Lost

The struggle to fathom the history of literature becomes easier when, reduced as to jokes, those literary marvels are great works are revealed  to be elaborate silly pranks. I am lucky to be awe-struck by life, and require no abstract plane upon which to experience this joy, but in the way of sharing have I such riches to bring to bear that I could not stop the spinning of my very atoms from describing  in waves the burying of entire civilizations within the surface of a picture of a monkey eating a  peanut butter banana sandwich. In other words, I have to really work hard to describe the shit that I feel. And to keep it real, I like to spin my yarns upon the reels. Digital honorificabilitudinitatibus, hmm, I think I’ll name my dog that.

Words are as lazy as the people who use them. Words want to chill the fuck out. Too much drama. Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money. All you need is love. Let it be. There is an endless search for the sum. To make the reduction pure, the essence must be an inversion of the best set of total relevant items? Mensa vs. farts. It will come down to Higgs boson farts. Cussing granny dark matter jokes. Spectrometer astrophysical particle analysis of gases emitted from futuristic simulations of our futurisitic,  cyborgian, non-carboniferous forms will reveal a need to reshape the graphene nanotubes all up in your pseudo-microtubulin, dude. And then more fart jokes. Big bang = fart joke. The Big Bang is the ultimate, endless low-brow joke. It emits gas, has the word “bang” in it, so it’s sexy and dangerous, and, just in case I didn’t know how to judge the scale of it’s importance, I find it right in the name we gave it. It’s Big. That’s great, considering apparently that  it was actually quite small to begin with.

So, why not have a Small Bang? Great literature is an application of many small bangs, and that’s honorificabilitudinitatibus, to quote a genius writing about an idiot in a play about a play, which would be a form Shakespeare would visit again with more or less the same crew in Hamlet.

I have to go cook. I’m done with this.

One Reply to “Rare word alert – hapax legomenon”

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