Last week, as part of the Lexicon Valley podcast, I talked about how the word discombobulate grew out of a vogue in the Jacksonian era for making up jocular polysyllabic words with a pseudo-classical air. That impulse for concocting silly-sounding sesquipedalianisms has often bubbled up in the history of English.
I first looked into this history when I was an editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. For the OUP blog, I wrote a post ("Hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism!") in which I broke the news that many of the candidates for "longest words in English" are nothing more than fabricated "stunt words." That tradition goes back to such fine words as the 27-letter honorificabilitudinitatibus, which appears in Shakespeare, and the 29-letter floccinaucinihilipilification, cobbled together from Latin words taught at Eton College (flocci, nauci, nihili, pili, meaning "at little value"), topped off by the -fication suffix to mean "the action or habit of estimating as worthless."
Even the 45-letter whopper, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (aka "P45"), was evidently created as a hoax at the 1935 National Puzzlers League convention. As it turns out, this supposed name for a miner's disease has never appeared in the medical literature, and was formed by stuffing a real word, pneumonoconiosis, with plausible-sounding material (ultramicroscopic + silico + volcano). Nonetheless, the word has entered various dictionaries, and as we recently learned has been incorporated into creative writing projects by British schoolchildren.
But while P45 doesn't sound playful, words created in the manner of discombobulate or its comrade-in-arms absquatulate clearly aren't intended to be taken seriously. Both words were created by draping Latin-sounding affixes around a funny syllable (bob, squat) that lets everyone in on the joke. Over time, that game was extended by packing in more syllables, which is how discombobulated could give rise to such synonyms as discumgalligumfricated and discomgollifusticated, both noted by the University of Nebraska English professor Louise Pound nearly a century ago.
In her 1916 word list, Pound also documented eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, meaning "excellent," and ramsasspatorious, meaning "excited." Meanwhile, her University of Nebraska associate Elsie L. Warnock assembled a collection of superlatives including alamonagorgeous, slobbergulluious, supergobosnoptious, and superlobgoshious. (Warnock's list caught the eye of H.L. Mencken, who cited it in his 1921 classic, The American Language.)
From words like superlobgoshious, it's easy to see how you can eventually get to the 34-letter supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, a word that has been floating around in various forms at least since the '30s. It later gained fame, of course, from the Mary Poppins song written by Richard and Robert Sherman, who recalled hearing it in their youth at a summer camp. The roots of that "super" word have been much disputed — see my 2012 Word Routes column for much more. But in truth, regardless of its exact origins, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is the end result of a centuries-long tradition of polysyllabic play.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer