Big Cat, Little Cat: Interrobang
The Interrobang and Other Matters
Has anyone actually seen an interrobang? I mean just been reading along and… BAM! INTERROBANG. I’ve been reading stuff for more than thirty years and I’ve never seen it once.
Which reminds me that there are a lot of features of a language that seemingly only exist… to exist.
This is a fun one. A hapax legomenon is a word that only appears once in a set. The “set” could be anything–a book, an author’s oeuvre, or an entire corpus of literature from a given period.For instance, there are several words that appear exactly once in the entire Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible–Torah, Prophets, Writings). Many of these words do not appear anywhere else in the ancient literary/theological corpus. That doesn’t mean scholars are at a loss to guess what they mean. They often look to other nearby languages for the origins of such words. It’s dreary work.
It’s a Fun Word
Just Learn it
But the funny thing is that the phrase “hapax legomenon” is likely to be a hapax legomenon, unless you are specifically writing a linguistic treatise.
Obviously, this phrase makes perfect sense in context. It comes from the Greek for “spoken once.” And it’s not like a straightforward Greek phrase like that is going to confuse a linguist.
The humor comes in when you start teaching the word to non-linguists. To English majors, for example, or historians or seminarians. There’s that moment–in college or grad school–where you learn the phrase for the first time and it just blows your mind. “Really? They have a word–okay, a phrase–for that?”
“Sorry–a what? A Hapax…? Could you say that again?” It can take a while. And for most people, that’ll be the last time they us that word.
“Sesquipedalian” is Latin for “a foot-and-a-half long.” It refers to unnecessarily long words. It’s clearly meant to be a self-referential joke. That’s all.
What’s your Favorite Self-Referential Word?
Mine is pentasyllabic. Though “English” is another good one. Then there are the ones that are often but not always self-referential like “black-and-white.”
Put your favorite in the comments below‽
Four identical panels, two and two. In each, a pair of cats sit on cushions, a large orange with darker orange stripes on the left and a small grey with darker grey stripes on the right. The orange is looking down at the grey as if he had just told a joke and is curious to see if it landed. The grey is looking off in the distance as if the orange had just told a joke that didn’t land but the grey is trying to be polite about it.
Big Cat: Little Cat, what’s your favorite punctuation mark?
Little Cat: Um… semicolon, probably.
Big Cat: Not the interrobang ‽‽‽
Little Cat: Definitely not the interrobang.
Little Cat: An interrobang gave me a case of the clap.
Big Cat: …ew.
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