27 January 2011

An Overnumerousness of Letters

Last week, NPR's Robert Krulwich threw down a gauntlet. He didn't know he had, but he did. He wrote an article concerning the longest word in the English language. He lists a few candidates, then goes down the list, taking them down one by one.

First there was honorificabilitudinitatibus. This 27-letter monstrosity was coined by Shakespeare for Love's Labour's Lost and means 'loaded with honors.' Krulwich disqualifies it because it was likely crafted for the sole purpose of being lengthy.

Then there is the long favorite among schoolmates, mostly because it's both fun to say, intelligent sounding and semi-comprehendible. Antidisestablishmentarianism is also disqualified as being only 'attention-grabbing hummock.' By the way, this collection of 28 letters describes the political position that opposed the disestablishment of the Church of England in the 19th century.

The word Krulwich eventually settles on is one we all know from our classic Disney films, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Invented without meaning and sung by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, this word, at 34 letters long, wins the prize for longest non-technical word, at least according to our friend at NPR.

(There are a slew of other words, mostly within the scientific community, that are far longer and even less interesting, but since they are technical, and mostly consist of stacking prefixes on top of one another to describe molecular bonds, they don't qualify, especially since they are very rarely spelled as words. The longest molecule wouldn't qualify, having published in the much-appreciated shorthand, but never written out as a word. The one that slips through is 1,185 letters long and is a tobacco protein. Yet, being a technical word, it doesn't qualify, rightfully so.)

William Lee Adams at Time NewsFeed picked up Krulwich's gauntlet and wrote his own article about long words. WIthout the technical muscle of Krulwich, he does little more than stoke the flames. Where the NPR article dismissed one word, the NewsFeed article quotes author Sam Kean's opinion of the matter with as near a final word on the matter as it gets. Kean's view is that the slang word pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, at 45 letters long, is worthy of the title. It refers to a disease you acquire when breathing in silicon dioxide.

The NewsFeed article then lists a few slightly-off topic locals with longer-than necessary names. One is in Wales, another in New Zealand, and the longest is the ceremonial name for Bangkok. Since they are all in Welsh, Maori, and Thai, respectively, none of them qualify as the longest word in English, which is what we actually care about.

Jason Kottke briefly steps into the mix (he's always brief, so it's allowed) with his choice in the matter: twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettuce-cheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun. It's a definitive non-word, but still fun to say: two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun. Kottke also links to the Wikipedia article about the longest words, which lists one none of the previous articles did.

At 35 letters, it beats out Mary Poppins by one letter, and unlike silicon dioxide it's not technical. Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia means the fear of long words. You could argue that it's redundant, since sesquipedaliophobia means the same thing, AND is used professionally. However, what we call a jaw, doctors refer to it as a mandible; both are still correct.

My vote is cast. I say hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia is the longest word in the English language. Maybe it's the humor in it all. Much like the humor in this clip from The IT Crowd.

(For the record, Negative One's word is real; Moss' word is not. I fact-checked on the Oxford English Dictionary online, which has a promotional trial through February 5. Use 'trynewoed' as both username and password for access.)

20 January 2011


I'm the first to admit my vocabulary has not grown in the last few years. I have not worked on growing it. As someone who goes on about how much he enjoys words, how important words are to our lives, i stink at learning new words to enhance my worldview. Yes, enhance my worldview. Learning a new language expands your cultural worldview. On a smaller scale, learning new words in your native language expands ways to see your own culture.

For a bit of fun, here are two videos of Conan.

Conan's Campaign to Bring Back Thrice

Thrice Returns Once More

Conan has the right idea. It seems every week there's a new word crafted that lasts about as long as a disposable cup (and i'm not talking about the styrofoam kind). For example, 'hevage' is a word created to describe male cleavage; 'facepalm' is the act of striking your face with your palm due to another stupidity; and a 'dork knob' is a short ponytail. Do we need these words? Not really.

So how does one go about learning new words? Word-a-Day Calendars?

If you'd like, yes, but a more standard answer is reading slightly above your level. Another answer is adopting a word. SaveTheWord.org lists thousands of little-used English words one can 'adopt' by pledging to use said word in everyday conversation as often as possible. I am adopting labascate, which means to begin to fall or slip. With how i walk, this will get used, i'm certain.

If you like a bit of fun to learning, try out FreeRice.com, a vocab game that donates 10 grains of rice for every correct answer. It starts out easy, then gets harder the more you succeed, until it hits upon your reading level, which is where you learn many fabulous words, like quadrennium, hydrophyte, and numismatics. I made it to level 40 without missing a word. That's right, i'm throwing down the gauntlet, to see who picks it up.

I hope i only labascate, as i invariably will, and don't succumb to the whims of gravity and introduce my face to the pavement after such an invitation for word sport. (See what a little bit of learning does?)

14 January 2011

Metaphors, Superlatives and the Political Discourse

The attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords last week was an eye-opener and a forceful shock to the entire country. One of the debates that has begun because of the attack is one i wished had started without such a high cost. As a country, we have now begun to focus on the harsh rhetoric of partisan politics. Much of the blame has been unfairly pinned on Sarah Palin. I’ve made it a known how much of a fan of Palin i truly am (not). Yet even if i don’t agree with her politics, or her use of language, i don’t think it fair to paint her as the source of the attack, however indirect.

Yes, Palin marked a map with crosshairs over the representative seats she and other Republicans wanted to take back in the midterm elections. She also used the phrase ‘Don’t retreat . . . reload’ to describe her strategy after a loss. Couple those two together, and after Republicans lost to Giffords in the midterms in a fierce Republican district, it could be interpreted as a call to arms: if the recipient of the call had no concept of illustrative language.

We use it all the time, mostly in the form of similes, metaphors and superlatives.

A simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare two things. (The cat is acting like it doesn’t love us.)

A metaphor uses non-literal language to describe something. (You scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours.)

Superlatives are the over-the-top language we use all too often in every day life. (That splinter was the worst pain i’ve ever been in.)

When Palin talks of reloading, and puts crosshairs on a map of United States Representatives, she is not being literal, she is using both metaphorically. Not only that, but she’s not the only political figure using language in this way. The political dialogue for as long as i can remember has been characterized by superlatives and metaphors, especially concerning war imagery. Granted, i’m only 27 and didn’t pay attention for many of those years.

Not to let Pain off the hook. (See, another metaphor; they fill our language like the air we breathe.) During a video response she filmed in response to the accusations thrown at her, she used the phrase ‘blood libel:’

Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

Being nearly eight minutes long and with the reflection of the monitor in her glasses, we know the speech was written in advance and not an off-the-cuff response, which makes her use of the term ‘blood libel’ even more astonishing. Historically, it is a reprehensible and false accusation against Jews of killing children and using their blood in religious rites. To use the term this way, especially when Gifford is herself Jewish, is not only careless, but irresponsible.

It presents a further illustration of why the language surrounding and used in our national political dialogue needs to be carefully considered and intentionally weighed for merit and value. You can try blaming the shrinking sound bite, but at least some are saying they are a symptom and not the cause of our increasingly degraded political conversation.

What we can do is applaud the politicians who are doing their best to change not only the language they use, but the environment surrounding the political discourse. A few politicians are calling for mixed seating during the State of the Union address later this month. Historically, the House and Senate have been seated according to the party line, a visible split in how our government runs. This intermingling shows promise to begin a transformation in dialogue we so desperately need.

13 January 2011

Lists: ver. 2010

It’s a universally acknowledged fact that if you are traveling through time, year end lists are your friend. They allow you to discover what year it is, as well as what happened in the previous 12 months, without attracting attention to yourself by asking such strange questions as ‘What year is it?’ or ‘Could you sum up the last year for me, in a nice top 10 list of soundbites or video clips?’, which is by far a newbie time traveler mistake.

Perhaps the most telling, if you read deep enough, are end of the year word lists. Not only do they tell us what was on our collective consciousness, they give insight into the happenings of the previous year.

For the past 35 years, Lake Superior State University released a list on New Year’s Day of the list of words they would like to ban for the coming year. The biggest source of publicity for LSSU, each year’s list is submitted by the public. In an effort to stay positive, i won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the list. Suffice it to say, they agree with me about refudiate, as well NPR’s Simon Scott concerning the phrase ’i’m just saying’. Check out the list for yourself, if you’d like: http://www.lssu.edu/banished/current.php

More interesting to me is the list compiled by the American Dialect Society. Their list is much more positive. For your enjoyment, the winners (with commentary).

Word of the Year
APP: I find it a bit amusing that the winner won’t be found in any dictionary apps on your smart phone.

Most Useful
NOM: Did you know it was based on the noise Cookie Monster makes when he destroys his food?

Most Creative
PREHAB: It’s descriptive of going into rehab to prevent a relapse. I like the second place better; the suffix -sauce, like in ‘lamesauce.’

Most Unnecessary
REFUDIATE: Did anyone like this word?

Most Outrageous
GATE RAPE: The TSA didn’t make many friends this year. They had another entry on this list under Most Euphemistic: enhanced pat-down.

Most Euphemistic
KINETIC EVENT: Who in the military thought calling a violent attack a ‘kinetic event’ would make it sound better? Also, ‘bed intruder’ had an entry in the last two categories. Google ‘Antoine Dodson’ if you have no idea what that’s talking about.

Most Likely To Succeed
TREND: Twitter is going mainstream, it seems. At least, accord to the ADS.

Least Likely To Succeed
CULTUROMICS: Try saying it. It’s awkward on the tongue. It’s supposed to describe a historical analysis of culture and language by Google. All it does it make my mouth hurt.

Fan Words
GLEEK: We can thank Dead Heads (fans of the Grateful Dead) for starting this trend of nicknaming the fans based on the source of the fandom.

So if you do happen to stumble through time and come across this list, recently published, remember the year it came from and you will reserve those crackpot looks for another time.