Tuesday, April 12, 2011


 So a harbinger is a kind of portent, right? It's come up a few times recently, mostly in watching the news about the Washington budget crisis, and of course I get it in context. But what is a harbinger when it's at home? And from whence does it derive?

Well, we got a lot going on here. A harbinger is one who foreshadows what is to come. A forerunner. If you contemplate that synonym, you may get a clue as to where 'harbinger' comes from. To be honest, I thought it might turn out to be some kind of bird. But no, a harbinger comes from the 15th century English herbengar, who was someone sent ahead by the military or a monarch to procure lodgings in advance. It's a twist on Middle English herberger, a provider of shelter or inn keeper. It goes back through the French to Old High German and the original compound is heri-- 'army' and berger--'shelter'. In this, it's related the the French auberge, or inn, also with German roots, which explains why it's never sounded very French to me. As time went on, the lodging procurer by imaginative extension became a kind of herald.

'Harbinger' is also related to 'harbor', with its roots of here-- 'army' and beorg--'refuge or shelter'. It seems obvious once you break it down, but hardly so from present day usage.

An interesting little oddity attaches to harbinger. Between herberger and harbinger, you'll notice that somewhere along the way, an -n- was acquired--an intrusive -n- as the online etymological dictionary would have it, and it even directs you to the word 'messenger'. Here you will find that the original word in English was messager. On this point, the dictionary gets quite uncharacteristically grumpy: "With parasitic -n- inserted by c.1300 for no apparent reason except that people liked to say it that way (cf. passenger, harbinger, scavenger)."

Sounds a bit like me when I've failed to plumb the depths of the mystery here.

A plant called 'Harbinger of Spring' 

All right, so harbingers of spring are all well and good, but as  a fair portion of the commenters here are crime fiction readers and writers, this post would not be complete without a harbinger of death. CBS doesn't let you imbed video, but you will find this odd story HERE.


  1. I have to say that if I saw that cat walking into my room I would freak out, comforting or not.

  2. Oh, thank you for being a harbinger of word meanings...that is, when a new post appears in your blog, it foretells new levels of understanding for me!!

    So now I am understanding Herr Burger as the original innkeeper and here-bringer as a burger to-go delivery guy!!!--in my odd, little whimsical brain, a harbinger of senility.

  3. I would say that those are good memory prompts, rather than harbingers of senility, Kathleen.

    I have to confess here that I kept seeing that hari berger and kept thinking about making a bad pun on the name of a noted UCSC prof, whom more than one person I know held in the highest regard. I never had a class from him, but he was on the same faculty as my college so there were many cross associations. The confession is that I was tempted to make a pun on a reference that probably no one reading here would even get.

    Wouldn't have stopped me, if I'd come up with something good.

  4. I refrained from mentioning a hairy burger, but I did think of Johnny Carson's quip about restaurant mishaps and being hungry for something with a hair on it.

  5. Yikes! We've started down a road here, haven't we?

  6. On of my fav words. I remember I learned it in one of those SAT study classes. Dolt, was another one.

  7. Sean, I'm surprised that you remember those study words so well. Also a bit surprised that 'dolt' was one the prep guides thought might be on the test!

  8. Do you take requests? Mine is "skedaddle." I found several places, including my American Heritage dictionary, that say "origin unknown." But one online source said it arose during the Civil War years, which is exactly what I need, since I am using it in a Civil War era script for an upcoming cemetery walk. Care to engage in this little search?!

  9. I do take requests, and I will happily take this on, though with no guarantees. I'm pretty sure I won't be able to do a new post until I do my taxes, which of course will be at the very last possible minute.

    Meanwhile if anybody reading down here knows more, feel free to beat me to the punch. I don't know that I'll get any farther than you anyway, Kathleen.

  10. Any number of French words seem to have acquired that parasitic n on their way to finding a home in English.

    Speaking of words with Civil War origins, someone once told me that "deadline" originated then, something about lines of dead soldiers. "So dealine originated during the Civil War?" I said. "Before then, did they always file their stories late?"
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  11. Hmm. English speakers always seem to think that French is very nasal. Maybe this is a form of compensation.

    A deadline by any othe name would smell as...well, not sweet.

  12. That is one cat I hope to never meet.

    I now see I had the complete wrong idea of harbinger, thanks for setting me straight, (I'm always paranoid of how many words I'm using wrong these days).

    Deadline is interesting too, and knowing the story of the dead soldiers gives it a whole new meaning.

  13. If I meet that cat, I hope I am mainly unconscious.

    I'm curious what you thought harbinger meant, if you care to share it.

    I'm so used to getting things slightly wrong that I am fairly inured to embarrassment. At least in this regard. I was just thinking yesterday, after assorted miscommunications at work at how amazing it is that we understand each other at all.

    Here's one from yesterday over the phone. A guy calls, asks for a book, I find it for him, put it on hold and ask for his name, he tells me and then says, "And your name, if I could guess it." And I'm thinking, oh, okay, one of those customers who know you even if you don't know them, and somewhat rolling my eyes say, "Okay." Then there's a silence. I think, what is he doing, trying to use his psychic powers? Nothing happens. Slowly it dawns on me that he didn't say, If I could guess it, he said If I could get it. Lord knows how long we would have waited on the phone in mutual silence if the much more likely sentence hadn't slowly dawned on me.

  14. Seana, your phone story is one reason I don't like talking on the phone very much.

    I always related harbinger to harboring or keeping. I guess I wasn't completely wrong, but not right either.

  15. I find that fascinating that you were so close to the true source of the word without even knowing it.

    Oh, these phone mishaps are fun, as long as no one walks away mad. We both understood what had happend by the end of the conversation. Of course, he probably thought I was a little dense, but you can't have everything.