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.)

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