Document Type


Date of Award



English language, Old English, Compound words, hapax legomena, Old English poetry

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

Bernard F. Huppé

Second Advisor

Mario A. Di Cesare

Third Advisor

Francis X. Newman




The purpose of this study is to see if there is an aesthetic principle governing the use of a particular type of compound word in Old English poetry, the compound which is uniquely attested. Compounds, which in Old English poetry are chiefly substantival and adjectival, are especially important in context because they consist of two words that in the normal vocabulary already had their own referents…What I wish to investigate is the question of whether many or most of these unique words are true hapax legomena, that is, words created in response to a rhetorical need. This study will assume the likelihood of such being the case, and will try to support such a hypothesis by showing how frequently the unique words serve a significant rhetorical function. It is difficult, of course, to determine positively that a word has been created, but at the very least the study of these compounds that appear only once will serve to demonstrate how compounds are used in Old English poetry and give insight into one of the elements that contributes to the particular character of this poetry. For convenience, and not by way of arguing in a circle, I will refer to compounds uniquely attested in Old English poetry as hapax legomena.


This study is an effort to locate in context and describe substantival and adjectival compounds that are apparently unique in Old English poetry. Although no positive assertion can be made about any individual word, hopefully sufficient evidence of rhetorical design will be adduced to suggest that most, at least, of these words were created. Attested only within a single poetic work, and usually only once, such words, it seems possible, were created by poets to fill a particular rhetorical need within a given context. Whether or not Old English poets relied heavily upon formulaic word collocations, they also appear to have been interested in creating new elements of diction. Many of these words are semantically complex, and their complexity produces meaningful emphasis or expansion of a predominant thought within the passage where they occur. These words which I consider hapax legomena are the best examples, I think, of the rhetorical importance of compound words in Old English poetry.