Harbinger
Posted: 18 April 2007 01:34 AM   [ Ignore ]
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An article in today’s Guardian speaks of crowds of television trucks, satellite dishes, etc as ‘harbingers of disaster’. Of course, unless journalists have suddenly been blessed with precognitive abilities, they’re not harbingers at all, rather the companions of disaster, in her train rather than acting as her herald.

Is this, I wonder, a simple error on the part of the writer or does it reflect some incipient change in usage. Has anybody else seen it used thus? It’s interesting to note that the word has shifted in sense before, as witness the OED entry, the thrust of which I give below:

(The etymology is interesting; note the intrusive n, as in passenger, messenger, etc).

[Early ME. herbergere and herbergeour, a. OF. herbergere (-begiere, habergiere), in obl. case herbergeor (-geur, -geour, -jur, heb-, hab-) one who provides shelter or lodgings (= med.L. heriberg{amac}tor, herebergi{amac}tor), agent-n. from vb. herbergier (-bargier, -begier, -bager, -bigier, har-) to provide lodgings for (= med.L. heriberg{amac}re), f. OF. herberge = med.L. heri-, hereberga lodging, quarters (for an army, etc.), a. OHG. and OLG. heriberga lit. ‘shelter for an army’, f. hari, heri, host, army + -berga (= OE. -ber{asg}, -beor{asg}) protection, shelter, f. bergan to protect. Already in OHG. this word had been extended from the original military sense, to mean ‘place of entertainment, lodging’: see HARBOUR. The form herbegere, occurring in OF. and ME., was in the latter changed to herbenger, whence, with har- for her- (as also sometimes in OF.), the current harbinger: cf. passenger, messenger, wharfinger. See also HARBOURER.]

1. One who provides lodging; an entertainer, a host; a HARBOURER. common herberger, a common lodging-house keeper. Obs.  First cite c.1175.

2. One sent on before to purvey lodgings for an army, a royal train, etc.; First cite c.1386

3. One that goes before and announces the approach of some one; a forerunner. Mostly in transf. and fig. senses, and in literary language.  First cite 1550

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Posted: 18 April 2007 02:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Interesting. And did you know that the Dutch word for ‘inn’ is ‘herberg’?
And the verb ‘herbergen’ means ‘to shelter’.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 03:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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aldiboronti - 18 April 2007 01:34 AM

An article in today’s Guardian speaks of crowds of television trucks, satellite dishes, etc as ‘harbingers of disaster’.

I can see an easy meaning shift here.  Imagine the scene:

One is idly ambling down a street and sees ahead a flock of television trucks, satellite dishes, etc.  These are the first signs of something, and disaster would be high on the list of suspects.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Yes, I don’t see it so much as an error as looking at it the way Faldage presents.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used to mean ‘companion’ or the like.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 06:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Yes, I see, Language as affected by relativity; it all depends on the observer. Perhaps we need Einstein! It reminds me of how best and worst can mean exactly the same thing when used as verbs: I bested him in combat, I worsted him in combat. Perspective shift again.

BTW perhaps I was unclear. I never said I’d seen or heard it used to mean companion. My point was that the media were more the companions of disaster, or followers in its train, than its harbingers, and thus harbingers was the wrong term. But Faldage makes a good point; to a passer-by the media might be the first sign of a disaster, its harbinger, although to a witness of the disaster they would follow in its wake.

[ Edited: 18 April 2007 06:18 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 18 April 2007 01:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Yes, this is another example of how those employed in news-reporting in America gleefully pick up a phrase and, without taking a moment to understand its sense, toss it about in the hope of sounding pithy.  Just watch an hour or so (if you can resist the urge to defenestrate the television) of CNN and you’ll witness all manner of butchery such as this.  I’ve indeed seen it used thus, and reminds me of another term used invariably in the wrong context by television journalists—moot (even occasionally misused AND mispronounced as ‘mute’).

Interesting, also, about the connection to dutch/german herberge—hadn’t made that connection before, but makes obvious sense when considering that the context in which I’ve generally come across harbinger has been in historical writing.  The harbinger was the scout or group of scouts sent ahead of an army to secure lodgings or camping sites; so the appearance of the harbinger usually signalled the approach of an invasion force.

Is the appearance of the television journalist the harbinger of the destruction of language as we know it?

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Posted: 18 April 2007 01:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Language, as we know it, will be destroyed because ever has it been so. Change seems to be an inherent quality of language and I’m glad that it is. Otherwise, this delightful place would not exist.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Indeed, the English language itself is nothing more than bastardizations, improvisations and agglomerations—we all know this.  The stuck-up sticky-beet in me, however, has a problem with the stultifying effect of American lowest-common-denominator culture upon a language which has given us some of the greatest works of literature (yes, I realize I’m on the edge of jingoism).  I apologize for straying off topic, but, as that great orator—the Cicero of his day—G. W. Bush said, “if you don’t stand for anything, you don’t stand for anything ... if you don’t stand for something, you don’t stand for anything”.  Wow.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 06:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Lowest common denominators are only significant to the lowest common entities. Great writers and lovers of language aren’t stilted in the least by anything said by television presenters. I’ll match your jingoism with a platitude. The cream always rises to the top… and nattering of nitwits can’t prevent it. The mindless utterances of GWB don’t rob you of your ability to think or write clearly. Chill, dood, it’s all good.

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Posted: 19 April 2007 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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One howler I heard on a news program the other day (not by a journalist, though, by the interviewee):

“It isn’t the pancreas for all our problems.”

I can see how some spell-checker gone wrong might suggest pancreas given a mangled panacea, but how someone could mistake these two in speech is beyond me.

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Posted: 19 April 2007 11:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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“It isn’t the pancreas for all our problems.”

Spoken by logo eaters on the Isles of Langerhans.

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