Word: harbinger

Pronunciation: HAR-bən-jər

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Yet another word pulled from the list of 100 most beautiful words in English, “harbinger” is a word I’ve read quite a few times in various forms of fiction. I tend to see it most commonly in fantasy fiction, where it often refers to a literal messenger warning of the approach of a powerful figure. Whether the arrival of said figure is good or bad news varies depending on the story, but either way, the presence of a harbinger is usually a sign of imminent serious business!

A “harbinger” is someone or something that signals or announces the approach of someone or something else. The word can be traced back through French from the noun herbergere to the verb herbergier, which means “to provide lodging for”. This verb stems from the noun herberge “lodging”, which comes from the Old Saxon noun heriberga, meaning “shelter for an army”.

As you can probably deduce from its etymology, there’s a history behind the word “harbinger”: it used to refer to a person who provided lodging and later to a person who ventured ahead to find lodgings for an approaching army. “Harbinger” is related to the word “harbor” in origin, and a sub-definition of the word is “a forerunner of something”. A “harbinger” doesn’t have to be concrete, but the ominous beings in fiction who seem to foretell the coming of such powerful figures as Death, Justice, and Doom have always been my favorite examples. If you like to warn your characters (and your audience) of major events about to unfold in your stories, you may have room for a “harbinger” or two in your fiction! Good luck!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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