To modern ears, ‘harbinger’ may sound like a character for Arnold Schwarzenegger to play: dark, foreboding, foretelling doom and destruction. But who were the real, original, harbingers? Well, it turns out harbinger was originally a job—a cross between being a road manager and serving as a knight’s herald. The story goes like this…
Sounds like: HAR-bin-djer (IPA: /’harbəndʒəɹ/)
- In Old Germanic, a heri was an army, and a berga was lodging or shelter. A heriberga therefore meant: a place that could lodge an army. Many inns and taverns started out as ‘heribergas’.
- Now, you can’t just show up at a ‘heriberga’ and expect, like, a thousand rooms. You need to send an advance man. The guy who took care of these advance bookings was called the her(i)berger (a.k.a. the heribergere, or herbergeour).
- English speakers turned her(i)berger into harbinger, and for centuries ‘royal harbinger’ was an important position in the English military.
- What with online booking and so on, harbinger has long ceased to be a real job. We have accordingly bleached out the ‘army’ part, and just kept this meaning: a person (or thing) that announces the coming of something important.
Other descendents of ‘heri’ and ‘berga’
Armies and sheltered accommodation have obviously long been significant parts of European culture—just look how many other words derive from heri, berga, or both:
- Heri in German became (das) Heer, one of the main German words for army—e.g. das Bundesheer is the name of the Austrian federal army.
- Heri in English became two verbs: to harry, and to harrass—again, bleaching out the older military meaning, but retaining the sense of violence associated with armies.
- Berga, for a sheltered or fortified area, lives on in all those place names that end in -burg, -burough, or -bury, like Salzburg, Marlborough, or Ashbury. These were originally (like any sensible medieval municipality) fortified towns.
- And the full compound heriberga lives on, too, in these other adaptations:
- In German it became (die) Herberge – hostel;
- In French it became auberge—that’s an inn;
- And in English, that’s also where (along a very different path from harbinger) our word harbour comes from.
Strange how the same two words can have such a mixed bag of descendents!
English speakers put the /n/ into harbinger around 1400 A.D. This was part of a late-medieval English ‘n-trend’ that also affected these derivations:
- passage > passenger (not ‘passager’)
- message > messenger (not ‘messager’)
- porridge > porringer (this is a bowl for serving porridge, and, significantly, not ‘porridger’)
No-one knows what triggered this trend (now long passed) for adding extra ‘n’s, except that the words all sound sort of similar. Weird.
- “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
- “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press
- Online Etymology Dictionary
Austrian federal army image is by Jakub Hałun (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Audio and other images are original drawings from Dexterous Tongue
Town walls crest is the coat of arms of coat of arms of Skuteč, Czech republic, image by by Tomáš Urban (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Porringer bowl image is by Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
All other media are original creations by Dexterous Tongue