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har·​bin·​ger ˈhär-bən-jər How to pronounce harbinger (audio)
: something that foreshadows a future event : something that gives an anticipatory sign of what is to come
robins, crocuses, and other harbingers of spring
: one that initiates a major change : a person or thing that originates or helps open up a new activity, method, or technology : pioneer
the great legal harbinger of the New Deal revolutionTime
a harbinger of nanotechnology
the harbingers of peace to a hitherto distracted … peopleDavid Livingstone
archaic : a person sent ahead to provide lodgings


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harbingered; harbingering; harbingers

transitive verb

: to give a warning or prediction of : to be a harbinger (see harbinger entry 1) of
harbingered the fall of Rome

Did you know?

In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, four hobbits—pursued by riders in black—seek safe harbor in the village of Bree. Unbeknownst to the hobbits, the innkeeper of The Prancing Pony, Butterbur, was made aware of their potential arrival by the wizard Gandalf some months prior (“... I was asked to look out for hobbits of the Shire ...”). When you consider the oldest, now-obsolete definitions of harbinger, there are multiple harbingers in this section of the tale. The first is Butterbur himself: coming from the Anglo-French herberge, meaning “lodgings,” harbinger was used as long ago as the 12th century to mean “one who provides lodgings.” Later on, harbinger was also used for a person sent ahead of a main party to seek lodgings. Those sent ahead would announce the approach of those following behind (the hobbits did not send Gandalf to Bree, but he did still herald their eventual arrival—making him a harbinger of sorts), which is how our modern sense of harbinger came to be used for someone or something which foretells a future event—such as how the hobbits’ arrival is a harbinger of the evil pursuing them and threatening all of Middle Earth.

Choose the Right Synonym for harbinger

forerunner, precursor, harbinger, herald mean one that goes before or announces the coming of another.

forerunner is applicable to anything that serves as a sign or presage.

the blockade was the forerunner of war

precursor applies to a person or thing paving the way for the success or accomplishment of another.

18th century poets like Burns were precursors of the Romantics

harbinger and herald both apply, chiefly figuratively, to one that proclaims or announces the coming or arrival of a notable event.

their early victory was the harbinger of a winning season
the herald of a new age in medicine

Examples of harbinger in a Sentence

Noun her father's successful job interview was seen as a harbinger of better times to come Verb the hope that the housing slump does not harbinger a general economic recession
Recent Examples on the Web
Election impacts: Democrats, including those in the White House, argue that the Alabama decision is a harbinger of further restrictions if Republicans make gains in the 2024 election — and hope the issue can boost turnout. Maham Javaid, Washington Post, 23 Feb. 2024 Last year was a harbinger of things to come, Lauer said. Zoya Teirstein, WIRED, 17 Feb. 2024 News that Mexico in 2023 exported more to the U.S. market than China did was a harbinger: while China will remain an important base for manufacturing, companies are cautious about excess exposure to China and are accelerating investment in other regions. Anne Stevenson-Yang, Forbes, 16 Feb. 2024 February 15, 2024 A rule change for basketball players at Dartmouth College could be a harbinger of things to come in college sports. Ira Porter, The Christian Science Monitor, 15 Feb. 2024 Its political developments are variously seen as a sign of democracy’s consolidation, as a harbinger of global democratic backsliding, as a beacon of tolerance or of economic development, or as an example of the dangers posed by rising Islamic extremism or protectionism. Ben Bland, Foreign Affairs, 13 Feb. 2024 The area, the Reykjanes Peninsula, had been experiencing strong seismic activity since October, a harbinger of an imminent eruption. Jenny Gross, New York Times, 19 Dec. 2023 As the genre turns 50, its most rewarding songs wisely cherry-pick from the past while staying true to rap’s reputation as a harbinger of what’s next. Pitchfork, 11 Dec. 2023 Record-setting events struck all over the planet this year, a harbinger of new extremes to come. E&e News, Scientific American, 20 Nov. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'harbinger.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History



Middle English herbergere, herberjour, herbeger, harbenyowre "member of a noble or royal retinue who assigns lodgings to guests or rides ahead to prepare an encampment, host, innkeeper," borrowed from Anglo-French herberger, herberjur (continental Old French herbergeor), from herberger "to lodge, shelter, encamp" (continental Old French herbergier, borrowed from Old Low Franconian *haribergōn, going back to Germanic *haribergōjan- "to set up quarters for an army") + -er, -eor -er entry 2 — more at harbor entry 2

Note: The form harbinger with lowering of e to a in the initial syllable and intrusive -n- (compare messenger, passenger), rare in late Middle English, became the general form by the seventeenth century.


derivative of harbinger entry 1

First Known Use


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2


1646, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of harbinger was in the 14th century


Dictionary Entries Near harbinger

Cite this Entry

“Harbinger.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/harbinger. Accessed 28 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


: one that announces or shows what is coming : forerunner
warm rains that come as harbingers of spring
: one that initiates a major change
harbinger verb

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