A posteriori

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GREAT VOWEL SHIFT: A remarkable change in the pronunciation of English, thought to have occurred largely between 1400 and 1450. Much of Middle English poetry (including all the works of Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and the Pearl Poet) was written before the Great Vowel Shift took place, and thus it should be pronounced differently than Modern English. In scholarly parlance, the Great Vowel Shift is usually referred to by its initials as GVS. Click here for more information.

GRIMM'S LAW: A formulation or rule of thumb for tracing a language-shift in the Germanic branch of proto-Indo-European, i.e., the way certain consonants changed in the western or centum subfamily. The term comes from Jakob Grimm (the same scholar who with his brother collected the folktales in Grimm's Fairy Tales). Click here for specific information.

GRISAILLE: Kathleen Scott tells us that, in the elaborate medieval artwork found in illuminated manuscripts, grisaille refers to "decorative work or illustrative scenes rendered mainly in shades of grey or muted brown; in English 15th-century illustration, often in combination with colours or gold, i.e., figures in a monochrome tone against a coloured background; not common in 15th-century English book illustration" (Scott 372). It is, however, more commmon in continental manuscripts.

GROUNDLINGS: While the upper class paid two pennies to sit in the raised area with seats, and some nobles paid three pennies to sit in the Lords' rooms, the majority of viewers who watched Shakespeare's plays were called groundlings or understanders. They paid a single penny for admission to the ground level in the yard of the Globe theatre and remained standing for the entire play (often up to four hours in length). The word groundlings for such audience members first appears in Hamlet. From this and other contexts, it appears that the groundlings were boisterous and not very bright, with a pension for eating nuts and throwing the shells at the actors on stage. (Contrast with the wealthy observers in the lords' rooms.)

GROUP GENITIVE: A genitive construction in which the 's appears at the end of a phrase modifying a word rather than the head or beginning of a phrase. For instance, "the applicant who lives in New York's resume arrived today." Here, the word applicant in red is the actual possessor of the resume, but because the long phrase who lives in New York appears between it and the possessed object (the resume), most English speaker's take the possessive marker and attach it to the proper noun New York. Collectively, this formation is a group genitive.

GRUE LANGUAGE: In linguistic anthropology, any language using a single word to describe both the hue of green and the hue of blue simultaneously is called a "grue" language. An example is Welsh, in which the word gwyrdd (pronounced goo-irrth) is a general term for green, but the word glas can accomodate both blue and all shades of green (which is why the word for grass in Welsh literally translates as "blue straw"). One theory suggests any ethnic groups living in mountainous or equatorial areas will tend to speak grue languages because the stronger UV radiation in these locations causes the lens of the eye to yellow gradually, eventually making the eye less capable of perceiving short wavelenths (i.e. blue and green) in the spectrum. Such people arguably have a harder time distinguishing minor variations in color between blue and green, and hence use only one word to describe both hues.

GUILD: A medieval organization that combined the qualities of a union, a vocational school, a trading corporation, and product regulations committee for the bourgeoisie. These associations of merchants, artisans, and craftsmen rose in power and numbers toward the late medieval period. Click here for an expanded discussion of guilds.

GUIOT MANUSCRIPT, THE: Technically referred to as MS Bibliothèque Nationale f. fr. 794, this mid-thirteenth-century manuscript is the most important document containing Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian romances after the so-called Annonay Manuscript was destroyed in the eighteenth-century.

GUSTATORY IMAGERY: Imagery dealing with taste. This is opposed to visual imagery, dealing with sight, auditory imagery, dealing with sound, tactile imagery, dealing with touch, and olfactory imagery, dealing with scent. See imagery.

GVS: The abbreviation that linguists and scholars of English use to refer to the Great Vowel Shift. See Great Vowel Shift, above.

GYRE (Latin gyrus, a spiral): A gyre is a spiral or circular motion. W. B. Yeats uses the image of a gyre in "The Second Coming" as his private symbol for the forces of history, taking the idea from medieval falconry. There, the falconer normally allowed the bird to circle outward in increasing distances, but he could not let it spiral out so far that it can no longer hear his commands. In the same way, Yeats thought of history as occuring in two-thousand year cycles, and thought that one such cycle was about to end in the twentieth century. Thus, his image for a world going out of control was that of a falcon moving too far away from the center or the falconer, which might represent God, tradition, morality, or some similar principle. (Note the word gyre is pronounced with an initial /j/ sound; compare with the pronunciation of gyroscope and gyrfalcon.)

HAGIOGRAPHY (Greek, "sacred writing"; also called hagiology): The writing or general study of the lives of Christian saints, either in liturgy or in literature. A single story dealing with the life of a saint is called a vita (plural vitae) or a saint's life. Notable examples of literary vitae include Eusebius of Caesarea's record of Palestinian martyrs (4th century CE), Theodoret's account of Syrian monks (5th century CE); Gregory the Great's accounts of the Italian monks (6th century), the Byzantine Menology or Byzantine Calendar incorporating short saints' lives, the Chronicle of Nestor (c. 1113 CE), and The Golden Legend of Jacobus of Voragine (13th century CE). A calendar that incorporates brief saints' lives is called a menology or a martyrology, and these have been compiled by Heironymian (5th century CE), the Venerable Bede (8th century CE), and Adon and Usuard (9th century CE). Among Protestants, John Foxe's Actes and Monuments (alias The Book of Martyrs), published in 1559, contains both a history of the Christian Church and detailed accounts of martyrs, especially the Protestant victims killed during the reign of Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary"). See vita.

HAIKAI: Another term for haikai renga or renku. See discussion under renku and renga.

HAIKAI RENGA: Another term for renku. See discussion under renku and renga.

HAIKU (plural: haiku, from archaic Japanese): The term haiku is a fairly late addition to Japanese poetry. The poet Shiki coined the term in the nineteenth century from a longer, more traditional phrase, haikai renga no hokku ("the introductory lines of light linked verse"). To understand the haiku's history as a genre, peruse the vocabulary entries for its predecessors, the hokku and the haikai renga or renku.

The haiku follows several conventions:

(1) The traditional Japanese haiku consists of three lines. The first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven, and the last line five. In Japanese, the syllables are further restricted in that each syllable must have three sound units (sound-components formed of a consonant, a vowel, and another consonant). The three unit-rule is usually ignored in English haiku, since English syllables vary in size much more than in Japanese. Furthermore, in English translation, this 5/7/5 syllable count is occasionally modified to three lines containing 6/7/6 syllables respectively, since English is not as "compact" as Japanese.

(2) The traditional subject-matter is a Zen description of a location, natural phenomona, wildlife, or a common everyday occurrence. Insects and seasonal activities are particularly popular topics. If the subject-matter is something besides a scene from nature, or if it employs puns, elaborate symbols, or other forms of "cleverness," the poem is technically a senryu rather than a haiku. The point was that the imagery presents a "Zen snapshot" of the universe, setting aside logic and thought for a flash of intuitive insight. The haiku seeks to capture the qualities of experiencing the natural world uncluttered by "ideas." Often editors will talk about "the haiku moment"--that split second when we first experience something but before we begin to think about it. (In many ways, this idea might be contrasted usefully with the lyric moment in the English tradition of poetry; see lyric).

(3) The haiku is always set during a particular season or month as indicated by a kigo, or traditional season-word. This brief (and often subtle) reference to a season or an object or activity associated with that time of year establishes the predominant mood of the poem.

(4) It is striking a feature of the haiku that direct discussion of the poem's implications is forbidden, and symbolism or wordplay discouraged in a manner alien to Western poetry. The poet describes her subject in an unusual manner without making explicit commentary or explicit moral judgment. To convey such ideas, the genre often relies upon allusions to earlier haiku or implies a comparison between the natural setting and something else. Simplicity is more valued than "cleverness." Again, if the poet is being clever, using puns or symbols, the poem again is technically a senryu rather than a haiku.

(5) The poet often presents the material under a nom de plume rather than using her own name--especially in older haiku.

(6) Additionally, the haiku traditionally employ "the technique of cutting"--i.e., a division in thought between the earlier and later portions of the poem. (It is comparable to the volta of a sonnet). These two divisions must be able to stand independently from the other section, but each one must also enrich the reader's understanding of the other section. In English translation, this division is often indicated through punctuation marks such as a dash, colon, semicolon, or ellipsis.

Here is an example of a haiku by a Western writer, James Kirkup:

In the amber dusk
Each island dreams its own night--
The sea swarms with gold.

The following poem serves as an example very loosely translated from Japanese:

Yagate shinu
Keshiki wa miezu
Semi no koe
[O cricket, from your cheery cry
No one could ever guess
How quickly you must die.]

This example illustrates the haiku's lack of authorial commentary or explanation--the desire merely to present the experience of nature:

Samidare wo
Atsumete hayashi
[Gathering all
The rains of May
The swift Mogami River.]

Many Japanese poets have used the form, the two acknowledged masters being Bashó (a nom de plume for Matsuo Munefusa, 1644-94); and Kobayashi Issa (a nom de plume for Kobayashi Nobuyuki). The Imagist Movement in 20th century English literature has been profoundly influenced by haiku. The list of poets who attempted the haiku or admired the genre includes Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, and W. B. Yeats. Contrast haiku with the tanka and the senryu. See also hokku, below, and haikai, above. See also kigo and imagism. You can click here to download a PDF handout summarizing this discussion of haiku, or you can click here to download PDF samples of haiku.

HAIR SIDE: The side of a sheet or parchment or vellum that once carried the animal's hair. It is generally darker and smoother than the flesh side, and it may carry markings such as pores or traces of hair follicles that have not been fully rubbed away during the manufacture of the manuscript. See manuscript, parchment, and vellum, below.

HALF-RHYME: See inexact rhyme.

HALLEL (Hebrew, "celebrate," possibly adopted as a loanword from Eblaite): A hymn of praise, specifically in Psalms 113-18, each of which is headed with the plural imperative verb, Hallelujah. The hallel was to be sung at the four main Jewish festivals: Passover, Pentecost, Dedication, and Tabernacles.

HALLELUJAH METER: Verse written in stanzas with each stanza containing six iambic lines, four trimeter lines, and two tetrameter lines--commonly appearing in English hymns.

HAMARTIA: A term from Greek tragedy that literally means "missing the mark." Originally applied to an archer who misses the target, a hamartia came to signify a tragic flaw, especially a misperception, a lack of some important insight, or some blindness that ironically results from one's own strengths and abilities. In Greek tragedy, the protagonist frequently possesses some sort of hamartia that causes catastrophic results after he fails to recognize some fact or truth that could have saved him if he recognized it earlier. The idea of hamartia is often ironic; it frequently implies the very trait that makes the individual noteworthy is what ultimately causes the protagonist's decline into disaster. For instance, for the character of Macbeth, the same ambition that makes him so admired is the trait that also allows Lady Macbeth to lure him to murder and treason. Similarly, what ennobles Brutus is his unstinting love of the Roman Republic, but this same patriotism causes him to kill his best friend, Julius Caesar. These normally positive traits of self-motivation and patriotism caused the two protagonists to "miss the mark" and realize too late the ethical and spiritual consequences of their actions. See also hubris.

HAPAX LEGOMENON (plural: hapax legomena): Any word of indeterminate meaning appearing only once in the surviving textual records of an ancient language. The word's rarity makes it difficult for modern scholars to figure out its meaning by context. Several words in Anglo-Saxon poetry and in the Bible, for example, are hapax legomena. In fact, somewhere between 1501 and 2400 words in the Bible fall into this category, depending upon how strictly we define the term, as Frederick Greenspahn notes in Hapax Legomena in the Hebrew Bible (Ann Arbor, MI): 22-41. The Book of Hosea alone has nine such untranslatable terms in the space of 263 lines as Greenspahn points out in an article from Volume 30 of Vetus Testamentum (17).

HARLEM RENAISSANCE: A dynamic period of writing, poetry, music, and art among black Americans during the 1920s and 1930s including figures such as Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, and Langston Hughes. These decades were marked by the post-World War I return of servicemen and the mass migration of black citizens to the urban North as African-Americans sought to flee the legal segregation in effect in America's South. The period is sometimes called "the Jazz Age" because of the parallel growth of jazz and soul music at the same time among black musical artists. See also multiculturalism.

HEADLINK: See discussion under link.

HEAD RHYME: Another term for alliteration--especially alliteration of consonants at the beginning of words, rather than alliteration of internal consonants within the bodies of words. The name is something of a misnomer, since "head rhymes" usually involve no rhyme at all! See discussion under alliteration.

HEAVENS: Sometimes used synonymously with "the aloft" and "the above," the term refers more specifically to the canopy over the stage in open-air theaters to protect actors and their costumes from the elements. Greenblatt notes that the "heavens" in the Globe theater would be "brightly decorated with sun, moon, and stars, and perhaps the signs of the Zodiac" (1140).

HEAVY-STRESS RHYME: Another term for a masculine ending in a rhyme.

HELLENIC: In linguistics, the branch of Indo-European including classical and modern Greek.

HELL MOUTH: Students should distinguish between the medieval and Renaissance meanings of hell mouth. (1) In medieval art, the hell mouth was a stylized painting in which the entry to hell resembles a gaping demon's mouth. In medieval manuscripts, the image first appeared in connection with St. John's Book of Revelation and in texts dealing with the Last Judgment. Eventually, when medieval theater developed, it was common to paint the entry onto a stage so the entry would resemble a gaping demon's mouth. This "hell mouth" would either be located on one side of the stage or it would be a trap-door in the floor. During morality plays and mystery plays, actors playing demons would enter through the hell mouth in order to dramatically grab sinners and drag them off to hell. (2) By the time of the Renaissance, the term hell mouth was used to refer to any trap-door in the bottom of the stage. At Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, for instance, the cellerage, or the entire area under the stage was referred to as "hell," and the area above the stage, where musicians played, was often referred to as "the heavens." This leads to some interesting implications given that Hamlet's ghostly visitor speaks to the protagonist from this area. The diabolical connotations suggest the spirit might actually be a demon rather than Hamlet's deceased father.

HEMINGWAY CODE: Hemingway's protagonists are usually "Hemingway Code Heroes," i.e., figures who try to follow a hyper-masculine moral code and make sense of the world through those beliefs. Hemingway himself defined the Code Hero as "a man who lives correctly, following the ideals of honor, courage and endurance in a world that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful, and always painful."  This code typically involves several traits for the Code Hero:

(1) Measuring himself against the difficulties life throws in his way, realizing that we will all lose ultimately because we are mortals, but playing the game honestly and passionately in spite of that knowledge.

(2) Facing death with dignity, enduring physical and emotional pain in silence

(3) Never showing emotions

(4) Maintaining free-will and individualism, never weakly allowing commitment to a single woman or social convention to prevent adventure, travel, and acts of bravery

(5) Being completely honest, keeping one's word or promise

(6) Being courageous and brave, daring to travel and have "beautiful adventures," as Hemingway would phrase it

(7) Admitting the truth of Nada (Spanish, "nothing"), i.e., that no external source outside of oneself can provide meaning or purpose. This existential awareness also involves facing death without hope of an afterlife, which the Hemingway Code Hero considers more brave than "cowering" behind false religious hopes.

The Hemingway Code Hero typically has some sort of physical or psychological wound symbolizing his tragic flaw or the weaknesses of his character, which must be overcome before he can prove his manhood (or re-prove it, since the struggle to be honest and brave is a continual one). Also, many Hemingway Code Heroes suffer from a fear of the dark, which represents the transience or meaninglessness of life in the face of eventual and permanent death.

HEMINGWAY CODE HERO: See discussion under Hemingway Code.

HENDIADYS: As Arthur Quinn defines the term in Figures of Speech, hendiadys is a peculiar type of polysyndeton involving "the combination of addition, substitution, and usually arrangement; the addition of a conjunction between a word (noun, adjective, verb) and its modifier (adjective, adverb, infinitive), the substitution of this word's grammatical form for that of its modifier, and usually rearrangement so that the modifier follows the word" (Quinn 102). This process sounds complicated, but it is a very simple way of artificially splitting a single idea into multiple subdivisions by sticking the word and in an unusual spot in a sentence. Some examples will help in understanding. For instance, medieval chroniclers might write "by length of time and siege" instead of writing "by a long siege." Instead of talking about "the furious sound" of an idiot's impassioned speech signifying nothing, Macbeth might talk about its "sound and fury." Quinn suggests that if Christ meant to say, "I am the true and living way," Christ might spruce the phrase up by saying "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." In Genesis, when God announces to Eve that he will "greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception," the King James translators are using hendiadys to refer to a single thing--the pain of childbirth--as a list of two items. Instead of simply saying God has a powerful and glorious kingdom, Matthew states, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen" (Matt. 6:13). In Hamlet, we read how one character states, "But in the gross and scope of my opinion, / This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (Hamlet 1.1.68). We would expect to read something like, "in the scope of my gross opinion" in normal speech of the day. Likewise, Cymbeline mentions "The heaviness and the guilt within my bosom" when we would expect to hear of "the heavy guilt within my bosom" (Cym.5.2.1). For these and other examples, see also Quinn 16-17 and 25.

HENGWRT MANUSCRIPT (pronounced "HENG-urt"): One of the most important manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, along with the Ellesmere text. The official designation of this book is Peniarth MS 392 D, but it is known familiarly as "the Hengwrt" in scholarly circles. The Hengwrt dates to the early fifteenth-century, shortly after Chaucer's death, and the paleographic evidence suggests that it was copied by the same scribe who copied the Ellesmere. The manuscript is currently located in the National Library of Wales. See Ellesmere and manuscript. Click here for a pdf handout discussing the various orders of Chaucer's tales as found in various manuscripts.

HENOTHEIST: The worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods or spiritual powers, as opposed to monotheism (the belief in and worship of one god), dualism (the belief that one good and one evil deity of equal power exists, often with one associated with the spiritual world and the other associated with the material world), or polytheism (the belief in and worship of multiple gods).

HEPTAMETER: A line consisting of seven metrical feet. Also called septenary.

HEPTARCHY: The seven territories or kingdoms making up Anglo-Saxon England--Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex.

HERALD: See discussion under heraldry.

HERALDRY: The study of coats-of-arms and aristocratic insignia, or the creation of such items according to medieval custom. In late medieval times, court officers called heralds were responsible for announcing, judging, and organizing combat at tournaments; introducing aristocratic visitors at court; maintaining genealogical records; and verifying or recording the identity of knights during a variety of military and social occasions. This process began in the twelth century and developed into an elaborate art by the time of the Renaissance.

HERESY (from Greek, "choice"): A "mistaken" or heterodox religious belief, i.e., one that does not agree with traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic church. In Middle English writings, heresy is associated with the Lollards. Click here for more information. Note that by Western medieval Christian standards for what constitutes heresy and orthodoxy, all modern Protestant churches are by definition heretical for deviation from the Petrine doctrine, for antinominism, and frequently for heresies concerning transubstantiation.

HERIOT (Anglo-Saxon here + geatwe, "army-gear"): Heriot has two different meanings, depending upon whether we speak of the early Anglo-Saxon period or the later part of the medieval period. (1) In its earliest sense, heriot was the gift of arms and armor an Anglo-Saxon chieftain or hlaford would give to his thegn, a warrior who vowed to serve him, to fight for him, and to avenge his master's death. Upon the thegn's death, the heriot would return to the hlaford. This gift of weaponry was a essential part of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. (2) In later historical periods, when the custom of direct military service became less vital, heriot degenerated into a tribute or service given to a lord on the death of his tenant, in which the eldest son of the tenant would provide the service much like the eldest son of the ancient thegn might return the arms and armor to the chieftain who originally gave it to the thegn. See Anglo-Saxon, thegn, and hlaford.

HERM (plural herma or hermai): In Greco-Roman archeology, a herm is a stone, bronze, or terracotta marker--originally placed at cross-roads or at estate and territorial boundaries, though in classical Athens, homeowners would erect herma outside the entrances of their houses for good luck. These stone carvings consisted of a bearded human head (i.e., of the god Hermes or Mercury) set on top of a rectangular or square stone column (typically between one and two meters in height) with no arms or legs but a prominent phallus carved to protrude about halfway up the column. Scholars like Walter Burkit have interpreted the original herma as apotropaic wards rather than as fertility or luck symbols, but by classical times, it was common for homeowners to place wreathes on the herm's phallus during celebrations. Before taking long journeys, wayfarers would annoint and rub the herm's phallus with olive oil as a libation to Hermes, the god of travel. In historical literature, we have accounts (such as that about Alcibiades) suggesting that vandalism of a herm was considered one of the most impious acts imaginable among classical pagans.

HEROIC AGE OF GREECE: Also known as the Homeric Age, this is the period of time between 1200-800 BCE. The term is normally used as a contrast with the Golden Age of Greece--the fifth century BCE when Athens was at its height of power.

HEROIC COUPLET: Two successive rhyming lines of iambic pentameter. The second line is usually end-stopped. It was common practice to string long sequences of heroic couplets together in a pattern of aa, bb, cc, dd, ee, ff (and so on). Because this practice was especially popular in the Neoclassic Period between 1660 and 1790, the heroic couplet is often called the neoclassic couplet if the poem originates during this time period. Note that "heroic" in this case has nothing to do with subject-matter. By all means, do not follow in the footsteps of one confused student who mistakenly listed Romeo and Juliet as an example of a "heroic couplet."

HEROICOMICAL: A humorous poem taking the conventions of heroic Greek literature and using them to comic effect. Most mock epics are heroicomical in nature, such as Pope's Rape of the Lock, which abounds in parodic imagery and spoofed situations based on The Iliad, The Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. See mock epic.

HEXAMETER: A line consisting of six metrical feet. Very common in Greek and Latin literature, less common in English. See meter.

HIGH COMEDY: Elegant comedies characterized by witty banter and sophisticated dialogue rather than the slapstick physicality and blundering common to low comedy.

HIGH GERMAN SHIFT: Also called the Second Sound Shift or the High German Sound Shift, this term describes the systematic change of certain stop sounds in High German dialects. You can see it by contrasting High German (which went through the shift) with other Germanic languages like English (which did not go through the Second Sound shift):

Original Proto-Germanic sound

High German sound

Examples from English to High German


pf or ff after a vowel

English pepper; High German Pfeffer
English open, High German offen


ts [spelled z], or ss after a vowel

English tongue; High German Zunge
English water; High German Wasser
English eat, High German essen



English break; High German brechen



English dance; High German tanzen

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