Hapax Legomena: The Black Swans of Greek Vocabulary

If you don’t know the term “hapax legomenon” you are the only one. …That was a joke.

hapax legomenon is a term for a vocabulary word that appears only one time in the Greek New Testament (GNT). Hapax is the Greek word for “one” and legomenon (plural: legomena) means word. These “once words” are the black swans of the GNT and the bane of the Greek student’s vocabulary acquisition. 

In elementary Greek (typically the first semester or two in seminary) the student will be required to memorize all the vocabulary that occurs 50x or more. There are a handful of words that occur dozens and even hundreds of times (words for “the,” “and,” “this,” “became,” “answered,” “said,” etc.) and there are hundreds of words that appear only a smattering of times, here and there, (e.g. the words for “roof” and “mat”).

But then there are the irksome hapax words, like the word for “elsewhere” and “market town”—both found in the same sentence and never again (Mark 1:38). And some books are heavily laden with words that are not hapaxes, but are all concentrated in the same place: there are 411 words that only appear in the Book of Acts!

And the problem with these “once words” is that there are a ton of them. Imagine a plague of black swans! 

Of the 5,437 unique words used in the GNT, about 1,900 occur only once. So 37% of your memorization will only come in handy once per time you read through the entire GNT. This is normal when learning any language. Think of how many blog posts you will read this year that have the word hapax legomenon in them.  The next time you see the word might be so long from now, you could have forgotten it.

I bet you’ve heard a pastor explain the word tetragrammaton at least once in your life but are you sure you know what it means (it means four-lettered word, referring to four consonants in the divine name, YaHWeH).

Even words I used here, like “irksome” and “smattering” are words you know but probably don’t see often. A Russian student learning English in high school might memorize “smattering” and “laden” for a quiz and then not see them in writing again for years. This vocabulary is not rare, just annoyingly infrequent when English isn’t your native tongue.

So if you, as a Greek student, learn vocabulary by frequency (as taught in class), the effort taken to increase your efficiency grows exponentially with every tiny increment. To learn the “50-1,000x occurrences” you will have to memorize only about 350 words. Then, to add those that occur 40-49x, you will have to learn another 68 words, for 30-39x another 79 words, 20-29x another 172 words, 10-19x another 479, 5-9x another 728, and 1-4x another 3,514 new words!!

So learning words that occur four times or less frequently, you need to spend way more time than all the other words put together. And even if you are willing to do that, it still doesn’t work. Think about it…

You may expend the energy to memorize a hapax legomenon, and then you may not actually encounter that word for the next several months of your reading, by which time you have almost certainly forgotten it anyway. And so, you memorize it again, but will never see that word used until you circle back to reading that passage, months later. By which time you’ve forgotten it again. It’s all feels very Sisyphean.

So is there any hope? Yes. His name is Darryl.

What Dr. Darryl Burling has done with his online program, called Master New Testament Greek, is develop a system whereby the student memorizes words, not by frequency, but by book of the NT. So you work to learn all the words that appear in 1,2,3 John, and then you can read all three books without needing to look up any pesky hapaxes (there’s only four in them). Then you move on to all the words that occur in 2 Thessalonians (with its eight hapaxes), and then Philemon (with none) and 1 Thessalonians (with 18 hapaxes). And as you progress in your reading goal, one book at a time, you find that you are able to read entire books of the GNT at a time. And if you re-read those books a few times before moving on, you are seeing your hard-earned hapaxes frequently enough for them to become familiar and entrenched in your memory.

His system works through seven increments, called milestones. If it is a goal of yours to get good enough at Greek to read the whole GNT confidently, I recommend this system (BTW, I have no affiliation or financial stake in this recommendation whatsoever; I have tried everything and find this way very effective). It is available online for $45 per month, and this is how long it will take you to be able to read the whole GNT…

Milestone 1: you will memorize 620 words in 21 weeks. At the end of 21 weeks you will be able to read these 7 books: 1, 2, 3 John; 1, 2 Thessalonians; Philemon; Colossians.

Milestone 2: 882 words in 28 weeks. You will read these 5 more books: Philippians, Ephesians, Galatians, Jude, James.

Milestone 3: 860 words in 29 weeks, and you will read John, 2 Peter, Revelation.

Milestone 4: 835 in 28 weeks, 1 Peter, Mark, Titus, 1, 2 Timothy.

Milestone 5: 729 words in 25 weeks and you will add 1, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Hebrews.

Milestone 6: 681 in 23 weeks and Matthew and Luke are added.

Milestone 7: 560 words in 19 weeks and you add Acts, one of the more challenging books as far as Greek vocabulary and syntax.

And with this, for now, we end our mini-series on regaining and retaining your Greek. I hope this helps someone rekindle their profitable use of and love for the language the Spirit used to produce the New Testament.

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