In a word

Antidisestablishmentarianism (revisited)

One had hardly turned one's back (I was on leave) when the Vicar of Skeagh (Rtd) launched a tsunami of syllables at a defenceless antidisestablishmentarianism recently. There it stood as vulnerable as Lear on the heath while all sorts of malodorous concoctions were thrown at its wholly respectable reputation. Leader of the pretenders was Rev Hilary Wakeman (of Skeagh in Cork) and her floccinaucinihilipilification.

She flaunted it on our Letters page, waving all its 29 letters at the more modest antidisestablishmentarianism (28), with a potted history. It dated from 1741, says she, and meant “the action or habit of estimating as worthless”, says she.

And it is. Worthless.

Then some days later a Mr Flinter, of Headford Co Galway, expanded on her word with inflationary zeal not seen since Germany's Weimar Republic with his floccinaucinihilipilificatiousness. This might be "semantically counterfeit"(false), he suggested. They speak odd English in East Galway.

To my delight . . . er. . . surprise, I learned that floccinaucinihilipilification was created as a joke at Eton College in England. They chose three Latin words each meaning "worthless /nothing" and squashed them together. There is flocci . . . , from floccus (a small piece of wool) plus . . . nauc . . . from naucum (a trifle) plus . . . nihili . . . from nihilum (nothing) plus . . . pili . . . from pilus (a hair/something not important) plus . . . fication . Floccinaucinihilipilification is about as authentic as green snow (outside of St Patrick's Day).

Bit late. Readers had abandoned all restraint. Our "please-keep-it-brief" Letters Editor was soon coping with words longer than a hangman's noose and which she would gladly have used as same. There was hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism (33) and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45) from Dr Hugh Adler in Donnybrook,who should know better.

The latter word was made up in 1935 by the president of the US National Puzzlers' League, Everett E Smith, to show how daft medical terms had become. He strung a series of Latin stems together to describe black lung disease, technically, pneumoconiosis / silicosis .

As for hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism ? It is another makey-up word used to describe . . . long words! Its definition is the "the art of utilizing extremely elongated lexicons to give the appearance of being more intelligent to one's acquaintances", such as would never be done by readers of The Irish Times.

And Paul Delaney from Dalkey struggled with Joyce's Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkon-nbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk (100 letters), said to describe the thunderclap associated with the fall of Adam and Eve. Sure.

The longest word in the English language, which wasn't created for the vainglorious purpose of just being so, is antidisestablishmentarianism. Alone it stands

inaword@irishtimes.com

Read More

Recommended