I saw a harbinger of spring today: a red-winged blackbird, which, as Hinterland Who’s Who says, “is one of the first signs of spring in Canada.”
I have a complicated relationship with harbinger. It’s a word I gladly enough use – in fact, it’s in one of my favourite phrases from my own poetry, “The heat-buzzer insect, harbinger of torpor” – but it’s that pronunciation. For a long time in my youth, I thought it rhymed with “bringer.” And since I learned that the g is pronounced like “j,” it’s always sounded to me a bit like a blend of Harbeck and injure.
Not that it has anything to do with injury, mind. It’s a word of presaging, of first signs, more like a bringer or an advance singer, or a herald. One of “The Forerunners,” as George Herbert says of grey hairs:
The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their color, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? Must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
But perhaps it’s better to say harbingers are like tour managers or event coordinators. You know, whoever goes on ahead to make the arrangements. As John Dryden wrote in “To the Pious Memory of the Accomplished Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew,”
There thou, sweet saint, before the choir shall go,
As harbinger of Heav’n, the way to show,
The way which thou so well hast learn’d below.
And as Matthew Zapruder wrote in “Erstwhile Harbinger Auspices,”
A harbinger is sent before to help,
and also a sign of things
to come. Like this blue
stapler I bought at Staples.
This is not to say that red-winged blackbirds (or robins, or nightingales, which Anne Finch called “sweet harbinger of spring”), as auspicious as they may be, are making the arrangements for spring. I mean, they could be the season’s John the Baptist, a messenger singing “prepare ye the way,” but they’re not really booking the hotel for spring to arrive, they’re just getting their rooms first, so to speak. Setting up the branch offices, you know.
But originally a harbinger was exactly the person who booked the rooms. Or, before that, the person who provided the rooms. The sense of ‘forerunner’ or ‘first sign’ was in place by the mid-1500s, but the sense of ‘person sent ahead to get lodgings for a royal party, army, etc.’ (as in the office of Knight Harbinger) was around at the time of Chaucer (that’s late 1300s), and the sense of ‘host, harbourer, innkeeper’ was in place in English by the late 1100s.
But, let’s be fair, the word wasn’t harbinger until after Chaucer’s time. Chaucer’s spelling was herbergeour. It came from Old French herbergere, which traces to Proto-West Germanic *harjabergu (‘army camp, shelter’). The modern French word is hébergeur; related words include Italian albergo and English harbour.
So how did that n get there? I’m tempted to say it was sent on ahead to prepare the way for the g. And in a way, that’s true, just as in passenger (one who has passage), messenger (one who carries a message), porringer (a dish for porridge), and a few other words. It’s what is technically called an “intrusive n”; it’s a pre-nasalization before g, not just when it sounds as “j” but also, for example, in nightingale. It cropped up in the passage from French to English in the late Middle Ages, probably under Norman influence.
Still, I prefer to see the n as not mere passenger but indeed messenger, harbinger, setting the mouth ready for the g that comes next. Without it, the sound would be that much more abrupt. Just like a spring that simply shows up one day. Which, admittedly, does seem to happen in Toronto.
You might wonder that it’s mid-May and I’m still talking about signs of spring. But I’m in Canada. And even though I’m in the deep south of Canada, we’re a place that freezes. In fact, there’s some question as to whether it’s truly spring yet. Yes, the patios are open at the bars across the street, but the hockey playoff games on their televisions give the lie to it. Not because it’s hockey – they play that until almost the start of summer – but because tonight they were showing the Maple Leafs versus the Panthers (not the Redwings, though that would be apposite), and the Leafs, on the edge of being dislodged, didn’t lose. And, as Torontonians have seen every year of my life, you know it’s spring when the Leafs are out.