A Vexillological Hapax Legomenon

Mississippi kindergartners pledging.  From the News-Herald of Southgate, Mississippi.
Mississippi kindergartners pledging. From the News-Herald of Southgate, Mississippi.

Back in 2010 linguist Geoffrey Nunberg brought an interesting perspective to bear on the Pledge of Allegiance, which had been in the news when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled, 2 to 1, that “under God” could stay, despite the apparent bridging of church vs. state.  He invokes the linguistic lingo hapax legomemnon, “an expression that only occurs in a single place in the language, like wardrobe malfunction, Corinthian leather or satisfactual”.  (Is hapax legomemnon a hapax legomemnon?)  He argues that for something to be recited daily by small children, what they are pledging when they pledge “allegiance” is mysterious — but so is everything else in the pledge:

Really, the whole pledge is just one big hapax legomenon, a string of syllables that only comes to life in classrooms and school assemblies. But there’s a lesson for children in that: The attachment to flag and country is a unique bond that requires a special language of its own.

That lesson is also a good argument that it may actually make sense to have a branch of knowledge and technical vocabulary specifically focused on flags — vexillology as Whitney Smith envisioned it when coining the term.

Nunberg’s complete essay, in text or in audio as it was broadcast on NPR’s Fresh Air, is here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s