Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Joy of Making Up Long Words

Last week, as part of the Lexicon Valley podcast, I talked about how the word discombobulate grew out of a vogue in the Jacksonian era for making up jocular polysyllabic words with a pseudo-classical air. That impulse for concocting silly-sounding sesquipedalianisms has often bubbled up in the history of English.

I first looked into this history when I was an editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. For the OUP blog, I wrote a post ("Hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism!") in which I broke the news that many of the candidates for "longest words in English" are nothing more than fabricated "stunt words." That tradition goes back to such fine words as the 27-letter honorificabilitudinitatibus, which appears in Shakespeare, and the 29-letter floccinaucinihilipilification, cobbled together from Latin words taught at Eton College (flocci, nauci, nihili, pili, meaning "at little value"), topped off by the -fication suffix to mean "the action or habit of estimating as worthless."

Even the 45-letter whopper, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (aka "P45"), was evidently created as a hoax at the 1935 National Puzzlers League convention. As it turns out, this supposed name for a miner's disease has never appeared in the medical literature, and was formed by stuffing a real word, pneumonoconiosis, with plausible-sounding material (ultramicroscopic + silico + volcano). Nonetheless, the word has entered various dictionaries, and as we recently learned has been incorporated into creative writing projects by British schoolchildren.

But while P45 doesn't sound playful, words created in the manner of discombobulate or its comrade-in-arms absquatulate clearly aren't intended to be taken seriously. Both words were created by draping Latin-sounding affixes around a funny syllable (bob, squat) that lets everyone in on the joke. Over time, that game was extended by packing in more syllables, which is how discombobulated could give rise to such synonyms as discumgalligumfricated and discomgollifusticated, both noted by the University of Nebraska English professor Louise Pound nearly a century ago.

In her 1916 word list, Pound also documented eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, meaning "excellent," and ramsasspatorious, meaning "excited." Meanwhile, her University of Nebraska associate Elsie L. Warnock assembled a collection of superlatives including alamonagorgeous, slobbergulluious, supergobosnoptious, and superlobgoshious. (Warnock's list caught the eye of H.L. Mencken, who cited it in his 1921 classic, The American Language.)

From words like superlobgoshious, it's easy to see how you can eventually get to the 34-letter supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, a word that has been floating around in various forms at least since the '30s. It later gained fame, of course, from the Mary Poppins song written by Richard and Robert Sherman, who recalled hearing it in their youth at a summer camp. The roots of that "super" word have been much disputed — see my 2012 Word Routes column for much more. But in truth, regardless of its exact origins, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is the end result of a centuries-long tradition of polysyllabic play.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 4th, 1:54 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Is there a modern-day equivalent of this type of wordplay?
Monday August 4th, 5:15 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
Sorry Ben but "sequipedalianisms" in line 4? Tsk! Even Microsoft spotted the missing "s".

[One letter too short! Now fixed. —Ed.]
Monday August 4th, 4:52 PM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
Orwell said "Never use a long word where a short one will do". Many of my students are speakers of Spanish or Italian, and I find myself quoting Orwell at them. Words of Romance origin are more likely to be polysyllabic, while those of Anglo-Saxon origin are more likely to be monosyllabic, which of course is why my students turn to them.

But Orwell and many others are against long words, and a part of that is to turn them into a source of banter and humour (sorry, humor). Is this an atavistic stirring of the ancient hostilities between Anglo-Saxon peasant and Norman overlord? After all, it's only been a thousand years (well, almost).
Tuesday August 5th, 12:08 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
To answer Mike P, word play of all kinds is intrinsic to language. The slippery connection between word sound and word meaning that we see in puns, alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia,repetitions like "fuddy-duddy" or "bagel-schmagel--these aren't extras tacked on to language, they are games and jokes we like to play with language's fundamental elements.

And I don't know if we can now include the 1950s in "modern day," but how about one of my favorite songs, "The Purple People Eater" with its refrain,

"Ooh ee ooh ah ah, ting tang walla walla bing bang, ooh ee ooh ah ah, ting tang walla walla bing bang!"

Take that, Mary Poppins!!
Tuesday August 5th, 12:52 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Discombobulate was a nice word, though long yet easy for general public.The antonym of Discombobulate was nicer and has been used intelligently.
I've doubt for P45, P34, P29 and so on long words or super longest words. I felt unfriendly towards those words. Wanted to listen to the pronunciations but VT column did not provide that scope. Actually, I never heard of those before. I am a commoner who possesses a great passion for language.
I felt curiosity to know since the introduction of those words, how many times those had been used in writings and who are those writers?
I believe Mr. Ben has the answer.
No Thanks for good work.
Wednesday August 6th, 2:15 AM
Comment by: Fresnohye (CA)
I've just now.....maybe four or five now's ago had a Notion to find a site that uses Specialized Technologies to create Acronyms for some of the Long Words that, after being combined for the specific function of identifying a business, entity, or title, need to be Joyfully make short. Is such an endeavor currently being undertaken, and/or in the process of becoming into existence? Pray tell. Or I can say Please Post = P.P.

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