Pressed rat, Warthog and the hapax
Once upon a time - in student days before Wikipedia -that was a challenging question.
This morning it drifted back into my mind while I was trying to avoid the Reith lectures on the car radio. I have enjoyed reading Michael Sandels in the New Republic and am fascinated to learn that this Harvard philosopher was the model for Mr Burns in The Simpsons. But lectures on the immorality of markets in traffic at 9 am? No thanks.
The poem on another part of the radio was one I hadn't heard for decades. It is called Pressed Rat and Warthog and it is spoken (and co-written, I discover) by the jazz drummer, Ginger Baker, on a record made by the once very famous rock band, Cream.
It is a sad piece about two animal characters - part Wind in the Willows, part dirty Scottish canal life - who are forced to leave their shop by an immoral marketeer of recessions in the past.
The pair have to abandon their beloved career 'selling atonal apples and amplified heat and Pressed Rat's collection of dog legs and feet'.
'The bad captain madman', had ordered their fate.
He laughed and stomped off with a nautical gait.
The gate turned into a deroga tree
And his pegleg got woodworm and broke into three.'
But what was a deroga tree?
The answer - eventually given to me by an enthusiastic teacher trying to make classical issues relevant to his pupils - was that it was a hapax.
What was a hapax?
A hapax was a word that only ever appeared once - in a language or a body of writing.
So it was often very difficult to say what any hapax meant.
The gopher tree, which appears only once in the bible, is also a hapax.
The oldest Greek has many hapaxes, names for forgotten farming instruments and sexual instruments that early scholars thought were more suitably translated as sea creatures. Classics and critical theory can take the hapax a long way. I wrote a piece about this once which, by the magic of search engines, I have just been able to read again.
The deroga tree seems to be a joke spelling of derogatory. Captain Madman's walking gait turns into a wooden gate and then into an adjective and then back into a woodwormy, wooden leg.
In the days before Wikipedia it was not so easy to discover a fact like that. How many books on trees did you need to read in order to be sure that a deroga or a gopher did not exist except as members of that exclusive linguistic hapax band?