Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Tracking Down the Roots of a "Super" Word

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. So many of us learned that outrageous mouthful of a word at an early age, when it was truly a verbal milestone to be able to pronounce it without getting tongue-tied. And just saying the word is an invitation to start singing the song from the classic 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins. But how did the word come to be? When I heard the news that one of the Mary Poppins songwriters passed away last month, I set about to answer that question, taking me down many unexpected alleyways of 20th-century popular culture.

My latest column for the Boston Globe gives the results of my word-sleuthing, which began when Robert Sherman passed away last month at the age of 86. I had seen some tributes to him claiming that he and his brother Richard had invented the "super" word when writing the songs for Mary Poppins. As a connoisseur of very long words, I knew the story was a bit more complicated than that. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, lists two earlier song titles with very similar names: "Supercalafajalistickespialadojus" in 1949 and "Supercalafajalistickespialadojus" in 1951. Both were credited to Gloria Parker and Barney Young, and the 1951 version was recorded by the group Alan Holmes and his New Tones (you can listen to it here). As the OED entry notes, Parker and Young sued Disney for copyright infringement in 1965, but "in view of earlier oral uses of the word sworn to in affidavits and dissimilarity between the songs the judge ruled against the plaintiffs."

Determined to find out more about the dispute over the word, I learned all I could about the players in the legal drama. Robert and Richard Sherman had a fascinating songwriting partnership, though it put a heavy strain on their personal relationship. The documentary The Boys does a great job telling their intriguing story. I was lucky enough to interview Richard Sherman, with the help of my colleague Erin Bilovsky (in charge of design for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com), whose mother had actually met the Shermans at the tender age of five. He shared with me his memories of the "super" word — which he recalled learning in a different form when he and his brother were at Camp Equinunk in northeastern Pennsylvania in the summer of 1937 — as well as the other inventive wordplay that the Shermans developed for the Disney movie songbook, like "Fortuosity" from The Happiest Millionaire and "Gratifaction" from Tom Sawyer.

I was also amazed to learn that Gloria Parker was just a phone call away, as lively and quirky as ever. Parker didn't let her loss to Disney in the courts slow her down, and she became famous as a maestro of the musical glasses — check her out in a hilarious scene in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose here. While my interviews with these colorful octogenarians enriched my understanding of the "super" word's contentious past, I was still stumped by the judge's ruling in the 1965 case. Leaving aside the question of how similar the songs were musically, how could he be so sure that the word was in use prior to 1949, based on the evidence of two affidavits?

The mystery deepened when I consulted a 1972 article in the journal American Speech by the etymologist Peter Tamony. (Loyal readers may recall that Tamony was the first to uncover the baseball origins of the word jazz.) Tamony said that at the time of the court case Disney's researchers conferred with him as well as other language experts, such as Frederic Cassidy of the Dictionary of American Regional English and I. Willis Russell, editor of the "Among the New Words" feature in American Speech. (I'm the current editor.) None of them were able to supply Disney with examples of the "super" word before 1949, but Tamony mentioned that Disney did end up finding an example in "a Syracuse University humor magazine of the 1930s," even though the judge didn't mention this in his ruling.

Tamony didn't supply any further details, and subsequent researchers had come up empty-handed in the search for the Syracuse University example. I spent a long time combing through digitized newspaper archives in the hopes of finding more information about it. (I also chased down other leads, such as a "supercala..." word in the 1942 horror movie The Undying Monster — see the video clip here.)  Finally, I came across an article in the Nov. 19, 1965 Des Moines Register about an Iowa junior college teacher corresponding with dictionary editors about the "super" word. F. Stuart Crawford, Merriam-Webster's etymology editor, was quoted as saying that he knew of examples from 1931 and 1951, with variant spellings. Aha, 1931!

That revelation led me to get in touch with current editors at Merriam-Webster to see if the 1931 citation for the word mentioned by Crawford was still in their files (even though Merriam-Webster has yet to include the word in its dictionaries). Sure enough, Merriam-Webster's director of defining, Steve Perrault, was able to find the smoking gun, which turned out not to be from a Syracuse humor magazine, but from the university's student newspaper, The Daily Orange. You can see a scan of the clipping here — it's a fascinating historical artifact, including notes indicating that it had been sent to Merriam-Webster by a Disney librarian by the name of Harley Fortier.

Further digging by Perrault in the Merriam-Webster archives filled out the story a bit more. In June 1965, shortly after the judge made his ruling in the copyright case, Fortier had told Merriam-Webster editor Philip Gove that they knew about the Syracuse example but hadn't tracked it down yet. A couple of months later, the Disney researchers had finally found it and sent it along to Merriam-Webster's Springfield office. Since it didn't come to light until after the court case was over, the judge hadn't been able to mention it in his ruling.

The article itself, from the Mar. 10, 1931 Syracuse Daily Orange, is worth quoting at length. I leave you with an extended excerpt from "A-muse-ings," a column by Orange staffer Helen Herman:

Several years ago, I concocted an expression which, to me, includes all words in the category of something wonderful. I am sufficiently conceited — or is it merely self-confidence? — to warrant that not many people on this campus, unless they happen to be in some way associated with me, have ever heard my all-encompassing word. I believe I am the sole originator of it, or at least, I have my own interpretation of its pronunciation.
"Supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus" is the word to which I refer. I'll admit it's rather long and tiring before one reaches its conclusion, but once you arrive at the end, you have a feeling that you have said in one word what it would ordinarily take four paragraphs to explain. It's very simple to say, and if you move along slowly until you are better acquainted with it, you're sure to appreciate its value as I do. It implies all that is grand, great, glorious, splendid, superb, wonderful, — well, all that is just "supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus."
This 34 letter word is not to be found in the dictionary. Perhaps that is because Noah couldn't take time off from Byronic English themes to think up such a conglammeration. For your advantage, the word is pronounced as it is spelled; there might be several penulted syllables in it, but I advise you to use your judgment when applying them. However for convenience's sake, the first most noticeable accent is on the flaw — no pun intended — and the others you may place at your own discretion, only mark you be discreet.
I have found that this expression of mine is very adequate in any type of appreciation. When asked how you liked a certain movie, or what you think of so-and-so, or what your opinion is of Santa Claus, you can merely answer, "Supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus!", and you will have condensed many thoughts into one. Perhaps the people to whom you answer in this manner will wonder what you mean; perhaps they will question your sobriety, or even your intelligence. But then, if you have the time to spare, you can enumerate the many things for which the rather odd expression stands.
When I am asked how I like to work in The Daily Orange with none of the superior males here to hinder my reflections, or when people query as to the abilities of the feminine part of the staff and the type of edition they can bring forth, I will reply with one word. With a tilt of my nose, a flash of my eyes, a swirl of my skirts, and a toss of my head, I will make reply, "It's just supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus!"

 (Though Miss Herman claimed to have invented the word, I can't really judge whether she has any greater claim to it than Barney Young, who said he coined it as a child in Massachusetts in 1921, or the Shermans' predecessors at Camp Equinunk. But she does provide us with the earliest printed use, for which we can be grateful.)

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Ben Zimmer 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.