What in the Word?! The forerunners of ‘harbinger’
The machinery of modern politics is complex. Consider just the role of the humble advance agent, someone who visits a location ahead of the arrival of an important visitor – especially a politician, say, for a campaign rally to sort out all the optics and stagecraft – to make sure all arrangements are sorted. But medieval politics had quite the ground game, too: they had the harbinger.
Wanted: Knight-Harbinger for British monarch
In contemporary English, a harbinger is, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries, ‘a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another’ – or in a word, a ‘forerunner’, as we proverbially say of robin and spring. John Milton, for his part, has left us with some of the loftiest instances of harbinger in his Paradise Lost. Opening his ninth book, Milton writes Lucifer’s revolt ‘brought into this World a world of woe, / Sin and her shadow Death, and Misery, / Death’s harbinger…’. More dulcet is his description of ‘the evening-star, Love’s harbinger’ in Book 11.
Yet, as with so many words in the English language, harbinger didn’t hit the ground running so metaphorically. Up until the mid-1800s, a harbinger was an officer in the Royal Household. Consider this passage from antiquarian Samuel Pegge’s 1791 Curalia: or an historical account of some branches of the Royal Household:
In the distribution of lodgings formerly, when the Court moved in progresses, etc. the Knight-Harbinger provided for the accommodation of the King and Royal Family, – the Gentleman-Harbingers for the Great Officers, – and the Yeoman-Harbingers for the rest of the Retinue.
Royal progresses, in which monarchs would venture into their realm for both politics and play, were often costly, months-long, and, as Pegge implies, entourage-encumbered affairs. Kings and queens would sometimes stay in their own lodgings or in special apartments at monasteries, but other times private residences would put them up. As historian Alison Weir observes in Henry VIII: the King and his Court:
When the King stayed at a private residence, one of his Gentlemen Ushers would go ahead to check that the house was structurally sound, that the roof did not leak, and that there were locks on all the doors.
The Royal Household still employs Gentlemen Ushers to this day, though their function has since evolved, while it abolished the positions of Gentleman- and Yeoman-Harbinger by 1782 and Knight-Harbingers by 1846.
Harbingers, then, were the original advance team. The word itself has been quite long-running, as it were, in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary finds harbinger in Old English homilies as a term for a ‘host’, ‘keeper of a lodging-house’, or, with an originally neutral connotation, ‘harbourer’.
Marching from military to metaphor
Harbourer is an etymological key here, for harbour and harbinger are what linguists call doublets. These are two different words that come from the same source, shaped in their respective sounds and senses by different developmental pathways. Sure/secure and channel/canal are some other common twins.
In the case of harbour and harbinger, their origins are harbored in ancient Germanic roots: hari or heri, ‘army’ (also seen in the verb harry and name Harold) and berga, ‘shelter’ or ‘protection’ (with its older sense of ‘hill’, found in countless place-names ending in -berg, –borough, and –burgh). Together, these roots created heriberga in Old High and Low German: a ‘shelter for an army’, which was also extended to a more generalized ‘lodging’ in those languages.
Heriberga found a home in the Old French herbergeor (‘innkeeper’), whence it advanced to Middle English as herbergere. English preserved the original military sense of harbinger for a time, also using it, alongside the royal counterpart we already studied, for ‘an advance company of an army sent to prepare a camping-ground’, as the OED finds in Chaucer’s day.
By the mid-1600s, harbinger was shedding its royal and military trappings, transferred to its modern meaning of ‘anyone or anything that signals the approach of another’.
Harbinger may have shed the sword and crown, but it didn’t quite shed some letters. Where did that n come from? It invited itself into a number of other words: messenger (i.e., a message sender), passenger (passage), porringer (pottage), wharfinger (wharfage). Detect a pattern? Middle English speakers had a habit of inserting an n specially before -ger’s. Say message and then messenger, and you might notice the n sound is just a flick of the tongue away – it’s almost as if, in words like harbinger, the tongue, er, runs ahead of itself.