Printable Version
Pronunciation: hahr-bin-jêr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A messenger or other indication of something to come.

Notes: No, harbingers don't harbinge, though Walt Whitman used this word in a sense precisely corresponding to today's meaning in one of his poems. Up until the 17th century, for reasons you will find in today's Word History, harbinge meant "to lodge". Today harbingers harbinger.

In Play: I saw the first robin couple hopping around in my back yard today, as though dancing to the music of spring. The robin is the traditional harbinger of spring in North America, but other kinds of harbingers abound: "I'm afraid that the new president is a harbinger of layoffs, judging from his history at other companies." Harbingers need not be human or animal, however: "Well, Gracie, I think that the flowers George sent you are harbingers of romance."

Word History: Fasten your seat belts: the history of this word is a doozy. In the 15th century, a harbinger (or herbengar then) was someone sent ahead to arrange lodgings. This word was an alternate of herberger "innkeeper, provider of lodgings", borrowed from Old French herbergeor, a noun from herberge "lodgings" (Modern French auberge "inn"). Now, before you shake your head and say, "Of course, another one from French," guess where the French got this word? The French borrowed it from one of English's Germanic ancestors, heriberga "lodgings", made up of heri "army" (Old English here) + berga "shelter", the same word that also went on to become harbor. If berga reminds you of German Berg "mountain" (as in the ice mountains known as icebergs), it should. The meaning of this word expanded from "hill" to "fortress", while the verb from it, bergan, meant "to protect, rescue". Berga "shelter" came from this verb. (Today we thank Kathleen McCune of Norway, whose emails are always harbingers of excellent Good Words like today's.)

Dr. Goodword,

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