What Is a Harbinger?

Harbinger originally meant someone who provided shelter. Now it also means a sign of what is to come. But did you know that there was once a royal position known as the Knight Harbinger?

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read

What is a harbinger?

In last week’s podcast, we talked about how Captain R.F. Scott’s sick ponies might have been a harbinger of the disastrous ending to their expedition, and I started thinking about the word harbinger. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t place the root or put it in a group of related words.

Well, it turns out that harbinger comes from Old French and Old German words that meant “to provide shelter or lodging” and later had a sense of someone being sent ahead to arrange accommodations, and in that sense, it is related to the word harbor, as in “to shelter.” Now it’s starting to make sense!

There was actually a royal position—an officer in the royal household—called the Knight Harbinger whose job was to “provide for the accommodation of the king and royal family” when the “court moved in progress,” and there were also Gentlemen Harbingers who did the same for the great officers and the Yeomen Harbingers who took care of the rest of the retinue.

While I was reading about the Knight Harbinger I went down a fun research rabbit hole and discovered that the Office of the Harbinger was abolished in 1846 along with another transportation-related office: Master of the Barges, who (get this) was also Keeper of the Swans. Keeper. Of. The. Swans. What a time. Now I have that song from Les Misérables stuck in my head. Master of the House, but with these other lyrics. Master of the Barges, Keeper of the Swans…da, da, da, da, da, da and your job is gone.

But what do you do when you get laid off from your job as Keeper of the Swans? I know I’m sidetracked, but really, do you have to go slumming with the ducks? 

Master Roberts, I’m terribly sorry but the lord has disposed of the swans, but I do believe there are still some ducks down by the pond. 

Anyway, you can see how the meaning of this word shifted over time: First it meant a person who traveled ahead to let people know the king was coming and to arrange accommodations. Then it came to mean any sign that something good or bad might be coming. 

Also, it doesn’t need to have a negative meaning like it did when we talked about Captain Scott’s ponies. A harbinger can be a good thing like in this quotation from baseball team owner and Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, who is reported to have said, “The true harbinger of spring is not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of the bat on the ball.”

Harbinger is still used in English to describe someone who is sent ahead to arrange lodging or to announce an important person’s arrival, but today it’s more likely to be used metaphorically to describe a sign that foretells the coming of some person or event. 

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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