Word of the Day: Harbinger

October 22, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is an unusual English word, having undergone a remarkable evolution from its medieval latin roots. It began, according to the OED, as the verb heribergare, meaning to provide lodgings for, and thus, from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries a ‘harbinger’ was a ‘host’, or ‘a common lodging house-keeper’. Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare’s six uses of the word have no such sense, although they do come close to the next evolution of the word, that which means not one who gives lodging but one who goes off in advance of a group to prepare it. In this way, Macbeth is quite literally a ‘knight harbinger’ when he promises the victorious Duncan that he will return ahead of the king and his army, and so “be myself the harbinger and make joyful / The hearing of my wife with your approach”.

Macbeth also provides us with an example of what is now the most recognisable modern sense of the word, a forerunner or, figuratively, an omen. Moments before battle is joined at Dunsinane, he orders his soldiers to “Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath, / Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.” Detectable in these words, although used metaphorically, is the remains of the pomp and circumstance that joins harbingers to greatness: thus the “blood and death” he foresees will be of great magnitude, since it is important enough to send harbingers in advance of itself.

To conclude, therefore, we find two senses of this word in Shakespeare, one who searches lodging and one who announces the arrival of another; in both, the presence of harbingers is a sign of greatness, whether the situation be literal or figurative. In this way Hamlet emphasises the country-wide menace of events in Denmark by calling them “harbingers preceding still the fates”; Puck captures the stunning magic of the dawn when he notices that “yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger”; and a misled Luciana underlines the bitterness of her counsel to “Apparel vice like virtue’s harbinger”.

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