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Dante’s Hapax Legomena in the Commedia: A Study of Poetic Singularity



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Rayson, George 


This doctoral thesis examines the phenomena of hapax legomena, words which are used only once in a given text or corpus, in Dante’s Commedia. Hapax in Dante’s work have previously been interpreted mostly in terms of the poet’s contribution to the Italian language. Hapax are defined in these works as words whose only occurrence in fourteenth century Italian literature is in the Commedia. My thesis shifts the focus from the field of historical linguistics to that of lexical poetics, instead considering hapax as words Dante uses only once within the confines of his poem. Dantean hapax are often specifically tailored to their precise position in the poem. They are, as such, markers of both meticulous lexical choice and potential conduits for readerly attention. With these two essential precepts at its heart, my thesis places hapax at the centre of how Dante constructs his poem and how the poem asks to be read. With hapax as apertures into the poem’s workings, this thesis assesses how choosing one’s words carefully is not just a matter of choosing between word a and word b based on the whims of individual preference (although it can be), but a central principle to the Commedia’s politics and most keenly, its politics of language. In three chapters, this thesis shows how Dante uses hapax as the most important means by which he, first, establishes his text as a product of physical labour, second, establishes the boundaries of what his language is for, whether serious communication or joyful excess, and third, establishes the boundaries between self and other in various paradigms, whether racial, religious, or regional.





Webb, Heather


Dante, Etymology, Italian, Italian Literature, Lexicography, Medieval Literature, Poetics


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (2442964)