Am I a harbinger of doom?

19 Jun

Last week, I started a new contract role, a maternity cover position.  I realised an old colleague was also working at this new firm, so I got in touch and asked him out for coffee.

After we greeted each other, he said to me: “I dread to think what you’re here to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Is there some secret redundancy programme about to start?”

“No, I’m just here to do business-as-usual stuff.”

“I suppose you couldn’t tell me anyway.  Is it offshoring?”

“No, I’m not doing anything like that. It’s all completely innocent and above board, I promise.”

“You’re like a harbinger of doom – I can’t help but be suspicious.”

I wasn’t particularly insulted; I’ve worked on quite a few redundancy programmes in the last few years – a sign of the times we’re in – so he was perhaps right to be suspicious.  But I have definitely never been called a harbinger of doom before (or at least not to my face).

The word ‘harbinger’ starts off life innocuously enough.  It derives from the same root as the modern ‘harbourer’ – one who provides lodging – or the Swiss ‘herberge’ – an inn or a hostel.

The earliest citation in English was in around 1175, in the Lambeth Homily: Þe herbe[r]gers, þe þolemode, þe elmesfulle‥sculen beon icleoped on þe fader riht halue.  You can also see this same sense of ‘host’ clearly in this quotation from a Middle English version of The Romance of the Rose, dating around c. 1400: With sory happe to youre bihove, Am I to day youre herbegere! Go, herber yow elleswhere than heere.

It seems likely the word came into early Middle English from Old French, although the word owes its origins to a Germanic, rather than Latinate, source.  In Old High German, the original sense of heriberga meant shelter or lodgings for an army.  ‘Hari’ or ‘heri’ meant ‘host’ – and the ‘berg’ part meant protection or fortification, the same ending that we see in place names like Edinburgh, Salzburg, and Hamburg. (See more on the history of place names here.)

Sticking with this military origin, in Middle English, the word also began to take on the meaning of a person who travelled ahead of an army to procure lodgings and supplies, a usage we can see in Chaucer’s Man of Law Tale from The Canterbury Tales, c.1386:

The fame anon thurgh out the toun is born

By herbergeours, that wenten hym biforn.

And it’s from this very practical, organised ‘harbinger’ role that we derive the more general sense of being a ‘forerunner’, ‘first sign’ or ‘advance warning’.   This meaning appears in the written record in English in the mid-16th century – and by 1575, it is already used in a proverb: Hope is harbenger of all mishappe. (Gascoigne’s Fruites of Warre)  Another notable usage is Milton’s Song: On May Morning:

Now the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger, Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her the Flowry May.

The OED doesn’t offer any commentary around ‘harbinger of doom’ – but does offer a rather more upbeat usage of the word – ‘harbinger of spring’, which is actually a North American herb, Erigenia bulbosa, whose appearance in March is seen as one of the first signs that Spring approaches.

If ‘harbinger of spring’ dates from 1865, when did people start to use ‘harbinger of doom’?  And are harbingers typically positive (the start of Spring) or negative (indicating impending death)?

My un-scientific search via Google’s timeline feature finds a contemporary citation for ‘harbinger of doom’ from 1894, in a poem entitled ‘Very Much “At Sea”.

If I find anything earlier, I will report back!

I’ve also come across a brilliant tool to help decide whether ‘harbinger’ carries more negative or positive connotations.  Netspeak searches the web for variations of phrases and shows you how common each variation is.  I simply entered ‘harbinger of ?’ and the results it produced suggests a ‘harbinger of spring’ is more popular than a ‘harbinger of doom’ – although I think if we add up all the negative meanings (doom, death, worse, bad) against all the positive meanings (spring, good, peace, hope), the conclusion must surely be that a harbinger is a pretty neutral carrier of news!

As the saying goes, perhaps me ascribing a negative connotation to the word ‘harbinger’ is simply a case of shooting the messenger!

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