Three years ago, when my publishers, Aleph Book Company, asked me to announce the imminent release of my book The Paradoxical Prime Minister, I didn’t want it to be just another book announcement. I was also conscious that a book on the Prime Minister by a writer who is also an Opposition MP would prompt some to assume right away that it was just a piece of political negativism, whereas I had made serious attempts to study the PM in depth. So to tackle both challenges, I tweeted: “My new book, The Paradoxical Prime Minister, is more than just a 500-page exercise in floccinaucinihilipilification.”
The tweet had the desired effect — curiosity about the word, which means “the act of estimating [something or someone] as worthless”, spiked, and the tweet, if not the book, went on to acquire a wide readership. “Floccinaucinihilipilification” caught on as a word to know, and for months afterwards, I was subject to little kids being wheeled out by their parents to utter it for my approbation.
A word as sesquipedalian as “floccinaucinihilipilification” doesn’t get used too often in everyday conversation, of course; it’s memorable not because it’s a word one employs every day, but precisely because of its rarity — and its length. When I first learned it, in my teens, I was wrongly told that it was the longest word in the English language, with 29 letters. I later discovered there are many longer ones — but none that are quite as entertaining.
The “official” longest word is actually one that no one uses, the full chemical name of the largest-known protein found in humans, titin, which contains 189,819 letters. If you disqualify that, the official longest word is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis”. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, this 45-letter monstrosity refers to an ailment “caused by the inhalation of very fine silicate or quartz dust and occurring especially in miners.”
Ironically, however, language authorities — and doctors — tell us that it’s not a term anyone actually employs to describe a real medical condition. The word was apparently made up for fun by the US National Puzzlers’ League president, Everett K. Smith, in the 1930s, in an attempt to mimic medical terminology, but there really wasn’t such an ailment at all, so not even doctors actually use it.
Interestingly enough, there is a real medical condition that, at 30 letters, comes pretty close: “pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism”, an inherited disorder that causes dwarfism (short stature) and a round face. It also pips “floccinaucinihilipilification” to the longest real word post by one letter.
Till “floccinaucinihilipilification” was invented by British undergrads with a fondness for Latin, the officially-acknowledged longest word in the dictionary was “antidisestablishmentarianism.” This was not an artificial coinage but referred to a real political stand in the UK, where people wanted to end the Church of England’s status as the established church since the reign of Henry VIII, or dis-establish the Church — they were the disestablishmentarians. Those who opposed them, therefore, practised antidisestablishmentarianism. That particular controversy has long faded from the newspaper headlines, but the word persists in our dictionaries. That can’t be said, however, for James Joyce, who in his novel Finnegans Wake famously invented words a hundred letters long. But since no one ever used any of them again, they never made it to the dictionaries!
Still, long words lend themselves to appreciation from various angles. For instance, what is the longest word in English without any letters repeated (these are known as “isograms”)? The answer is “uncopyrightable,” meaning a work that cannot be copyrighted. Or how about the longest word made up only of vowels? That’s a term that comes from medieval music: “euouae”. Somewhat less obscure, if not exactly overflowing with erudition, is the longest word that has no vowels — which, believe it or not, is “tsktsk”, an exclamation of disappointment or regret. To describe the kind of word “tsktsk” is, however, you need a much longer word — for it’s an onomatopoeia, a word that mimics a specific sound (“thud”, for instance, or “pitter-patter”, are examples of onomatopoeia).
Of course, I have long objected to being described as someone who uses long words, a “sesquipedalian”. Still, I do enjoy the fact that it’s a word that contains six syllables and uses seven vowels. So it can’t be all bad!
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words3 months ago