four very long words

The Order of Logogustation does know how to party… polysyllabically. One popular event is Night of the Long Words. Its unofficial theme song is “Excellent Birds” (also called “This Is the Picture”) by Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, which has the line “Long words. Excellent words. I can hear them now.”

We like to bring out some of the old favourites – words and debates. Which word to count as the longest word, for instance.

“I am of the opinion that in normal circumstances one may count antidisestablishmentarianism as the longest word in the English language as it is spoken today among those words not deliberately coined solely for the sake of being long,” opined Raoul Carter at a recent instance of the meeting.

“You’ve managed to produce a sentence as agglutinative as that word,” I noted approvingly.

“Moreso,” Raoul said. “There are only seven morphemes in antidisestablishmentarianism, not as many as I had modifying phrases.” He was right, too, by one way of counting them anyway: anti+dis+establish+ment+ari+an+ism. One cannot decompose establish, the stable root of the word, further; it comes, by way of former French establir (now établir), from Latin stabilire, which derives from stabilis “stable.” Add to it in the following sequence: disestablishment (meaning, in this case, separation of church from state), disestablishmentary (an adjective form), antidisestablishmentary (meaning opposed to this doctrine of disestablishment), antidisestablishmentarian (of an antidisestablishmentary nature), and finally, as the noun for the belief in this opposition to disestablishment, antidisestablishmentarianism.

“The problem,” my old friend Philippe chipped in, “is that the word really only exists in the language now – only surivived, and perhaps really was motivated in the first place – because of its length. And if you are of the sesquipedalian disposition, then absolutely, without question, undeniably, obviously, floccinaucinihilipilification is a longer word on paper.”

“Cute,” I said. “Another syntax-morphology match-up.” Philippe made a small bow of acknowledgement. The first four morphemes of floccinaucinihilipilificationflocci, nauci, nihili, and pili – all denote insignificant things or nothing and come from phrases (in the Eton Latin Grammar) meaning “don’t care” – each of the words plus facere, “make” (e.g., flocci facere). The word as a whole, invented fancifully for the sake of length, refers to the act or habit of estimating something as worthless.

“However, it has one less phoneme,” Raoul noted correctly (it has two cases where two letters represent one phoneme – au and ti – whereas Raoul’s word has but one, sh).

“And, on the other hand, one more syllable,” Philippe parried.

“But if we’re to allow words that have been invented to be long,” I said, “then you both know that a longer words stalks the lexicon: open your dictionaries to pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” I did not try to mirror the morphology with my syntax.

“Ick,” Raoul said. “It’s not even very well formed. There’s no especially good reason to have it joined between microscopic and silico. It’s like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It’s simply not normal in English to put an ic in the middle of a word without so much as a hyphen.”

“Besides,” Philippe added, dogpiling on, “it’s just a surgically enhanced version of silicosis. There isn’t another single word that expresses either of our words; you need a phrase for each of them.”

“If perhaps a shorter phrase,” I pointed out.

At this point Jess walked up. “Gents,” she said, “there is a word of goodly length that was coined entirely in earnest.”

“Oh, not that bloody chemical name that requires a paperback book,” Raoul said, rolling his eyes.

“No,” Jess said, “that’s in no dictionary, and if that word exists then one need merely posit a slightly more complex chemical and come up with an even longer ‘word’ for this hypothetical substance. No, I mean pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism. Every bit of it has a reason to be there, even both pseudos.” True: pseudohypoparathyroidism is a condition that seems like hypoparathyroidism – a parathyroid deficiency – but isn’t, and pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism in turn resembles that condition but isn’t it.

“Oh, that’s just a technical term,” Raul said with a wave of his hand.

“Meaning someone actually uses it,” Jess countered.

“Funny, though,” said Philippe, “nobody ever talks about that one.”

“People do tend to shy away from inherited metabolic disorders,” I said. “But also, it’s not really in the game, as it were. It wasn’t coined to be long; it’s an accidental competitor.”

Raoul, meanwhile, had been silently enunciating while counting on his fingers. “Not if you count phonemes or syllables it doesn’t,” he said.

“I believe he’s floccinaucinihilipilificating your word,” Philippe said to Jess.

“It’s still a word that is actually used in earnest,” Jess said. “And it’s smooth and rhythmic.”

She had a point. And I leave the further tasting of these words – their mouthfeel and echoes in particular – to the reader as an exercise. Quite a bit of exercise, I’d say.

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5 responses to “four very long words

  1. Pingback: saccade | Sesquiotica

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  3. Pingback: concupiscence | Sesquiotica

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