Christmas Words (4): Herald

The next word in this series is associated with Christmas through a hymn we often hear at carol services:

  • Hark! The herald-angels sing
    Glory to the new-born King…

This hymn is commonly referred to as “Hark the Herald”, which makes mincemeat of the syntax of the original: Hark is an instruction to listen, and herald is a noun-modifier which describes the angels.

What is a herald?

Originally, a herald was an announcer, conveying messages on behalf of the monarch, or officiating at a late-mediaeval tournament.

Art by Barthélemy d’Eyck, via Wikipedia.

The ceremonial duties of a herald have continued into the modern age, through the niche science of heraldry: that’s the study and design of shields and coats of arms.

The word has taken on a new context since the advent of the newspaper industry: The Herald, together with localised variants like The Sydney Morning Herald, is one of the most commonly-used titles for daily or weekly publications in English-speaking countries.

So, outside newspaper names, it’s a pretty rare word?

As a noun, it is.

But herald can also be used as a verb, with a meaning somewhere between announce and predict. You could use herald and signal interchangeably in these two examples:

  • The resignation of the President’s closest ally appears to herald a major change in policy direction.
  • Could the opening of the new store herald an upturn in the town centre’s fortunes?

Note the pattern here: [noun] heralds [noun].

Is the verb herald used mostly for positive changes?

Looking at the data I found, it seems to be more positive than negative, although not always:

  • The sudden snowfall heralded the traditional festive curse: chaos on the roads and railways.

However, there is a slightly different usage of herald which is always positive:

  • The new goalkeeper has been heralded by fans as a genius, even a magician.
  • The new vaccine was widely heralded as the new wonder drug and a cure for all strains of the disease.

This means something like praised or hailed or lauded. When used in this way, herald tends to be put into the passive: [noun] was heralded by [someone] as [a good thing].

Using this sentence construction can suggest a sceptical tone. In the second example above, it’s likely that the next sentence or paragraph will contain some information putting doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Heralded could be used as an adjective, right?

Yep, and it’s often preceded by much, to refer to a thing or person that generated a lot of publicity before or after its appearance. As a two-word adjective, much-heralded is normally hyphenated:

  • Following her much-heralded debut novel, Basic, she started work on an anthology of short stories which won the prestigious Fish Penfold Prize upon its publication in 2010.
  • The much-heralded update to their algorithm brought a range of issues, and led to an exodus of users to other social media before it was reversed two months later.

Again, this usage can introduce some scepticism into the report: the writer is able to recognise public acclaim or ‘buzz’ without necessarily agreeing that it is justified. In the second example, the software upate was the subject of ultimately empty hype: once it was released, users were disappointed.

By contrast, it seems likely that the publicity generated by Basic came after publication, in response to the novel’s popularity with readers and critics. In this case, much-heralded appears to be a genuine compliment.

Is there an opposite, for something that hasn’t generated any hype?

The opposite is unheralded, a favourite of sports writers:

  • A largely unheralded team before these Championships, they have increasingly found a discipline and resilience that is the envy of many rivals.
  • The unheralded clay-court specialist raised eyebrows when he took Nadal to three tight sets at last season’s San Marino Open.

As in these examples, unheralded tends to be used in contexts where the person or thing has already achieved some success:

  • The [name of car] was largely unheralded prior to its launch in 1979, but it soon captured the hearts of the motoring public with its quirky style and zippy engines.

Could I describe this blog as unheralded?

You pretty much could, but could you help to change that? If you’ve found this post useful or entertaining, please share, follow, or leave a ‘like’.

(Main Photo from Pixabay, via Pexels)

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