As a boy, I learned that the longest word in the English language was “antidisestablishmentarianism”. Mugging up this word, I showed off to family and friends. Over time, I learned that there were similarly long words such as “honoraficabilitudinitatibus” and “floccinaucinihilipilification”. I memorised these words too and flaunted my knowledge at every opportunity.
Later, I was told that the word “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” was the new record holder.
All of the aforementioned words have a claim to the record in one way or the other.
Antidisestablishmentarianism (28 letters) refers to the political movement to oppose the disestablishment of the Church of England, and consequently its separation from the state.
At 27 letters, honoraficabilitudinitatibus was a word used in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost to signify “a state of being able to achieve honours”.
Floccinaucinihilipilification (29 letters) originated from an 18th century Eton grammar textbook, and means “the estimation of something as being worthless”.
And then there is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis at 45 letters, a pulmonary disease to which coal miners are particularly susceptible.
These four words appear in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, along with other wonderfully polysyllabic words such as:
Spectrophotofluorometrically: The relative intensities of light in different parts of a spectrum
Hepaticocholangiogastrostomy: An atrophy of the body, or a part of it
Pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism: An inherited disorder pertaining to thyroidism
However, there is some controversy surrounding these words.
Merriam Webster’s dictionary, for example, disqualifies all of them because they do not meet its criteria. A word, to be admitted in the dictionary, must essentially have meaningful usage, widespread usage and sustained usage. The longest word it allows, therefore, is “electroencephalographically”, which means using an electroencephalograph to examine a patient.
A linguist’s argument
I recently brought up this subject at a gathering of linguists, who proceeding to one-up each other with words each more intimidating than the last.
Here’s a selection:
Hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism – Pertaining to long or polysyllabic words.
Asseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary – A descriptor of the structure of the human body.
Aequeosalinocalcalinosetaceoaluminosocupreovitriolic – A descriptor of the spa waters at Bath, in England.
Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk – The 101-letter word used by James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake to represent the symbolic thunderclap following Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden (a word which, its proposer pointed out, was also used by Sylvia Plath, poignantly, in her self-destructive autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar).
But, as the discussion went on, it turned out that all of the above words have certain shortcomings.
Hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism, for example, happens to be a coined word, which takes the basic word “sesquipedalian” – meaning polysyllabic, or characterised by long words – and adds not only a “monstro” to it, but also a “hippopoto” for good measure.
Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk, too, is also coined.
Asseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary and aequeosalinocalcalinosetaceoaluminosocupreovitriolic, meanwhile, face a more complicated, ambiguous issue, for they both fall into the category of technical terms – which lexicographers are divided about.
While the Oxford Dictionaries allow technical terms, they draw the line at chemical names. They do not consider these to be bona fide words, but a separate category by themselves. Other lexicographical authorities frown upon all such specialised technical terms.
However, were these technical terms to be considered, the record would be taken by a word that is 1,89,819 letters long. It begins with “Methionylthreonylthreonylglutaminylarginyltyrosy….” and ends with “….glutamylasparaginylglutaminylglutaminylserxisoleucin”. Moreover, it covers 70 printed pages, and takes over three hours to say.
In short, it is the scientific term for titin – a protein in humans that functions as a molecular spring responsible for the passive elasticity of muscle.
A matter of criteria
So which word actually holds the record? It all comes down to criteria.
“Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” is the longest word to appear in a major dictionary. Turns out it was originally coined by Everett M Smith, president of the National Puzzlers League in 1935. The word has since acquired medical legitimacy, and is referred to as “P45” by researchers.
“Pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism” is the longest non-coined (but technical) word.
“Floccinaucinihilipilification” is the longest unchallenged non-technical (but coined) word. It has been used by people as diverse as 18th century historical novelist Sir Walter Scott and Mike McCurry, US President Bill Clinton’s press secretary (who used it, tongue-in-cheek, to explain a discrepancy in the federal budget).
“Antidisestablishmentarianism” is the longest non-coined, non-technical word.
“Honoraficabilitudinitatibus” is the longest word sanctified by William Shakespeare himself: “I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon”.
The unabashed lexophile would, however, undoubtedly vote for the 1,89,819-letter long word for titin, given the sheer polysyllabic pleasure it holds.
But the purist would insist on the 27-letter “electroencephalographically” (as Merriam Webster does). Or even just the 22-letter “counterrevolutionaries” and “deinstitutionalization” (which, as lexicographer Ross Eckler points out, are the longest words in common usage).
The Indian lexophile, meanwhile, would surely press for the longest word ever to appear in world literature. Quoted by the Guinness Book of Records, it is a Sanskrit compound word appearing in Tirumalamba’s 16th century VaradāmbikāPariṇayaCampū to describe the environs of Kanchipuram.
This 195-letter, 208-syllable word is: ‘Nirantarāndhakārita-digantara-kandaladamanda-sudhārasa-bindu-sāndratara-ghanāghana-vr̥inda-sandehakara-syandamāna-makaranda-bindu-bandhuratara-mākanda-taru-kula-talpa-kalpa-mr̥dula-sikatā-jāla-jaṭila-mūla-tala-maruvaka-miladalaghu-laghu-laya-kalita-ramaṇīya-pānīya-śālikā-bālikā-karāra-vinda-galantikā-galadelā-lavaṅga-pāṭala-ghanasāra-kastūrikātisaurabha-medura-laghutara-madhura-śītalatara-saliladhārā-nirākariṣṇu-tadīya-vimala-vilochana-mayūkha-rekhāpasārita-pipāsāyāsa-pathika-lokān’.
Translated into English, it means: “In this region, the distress caused by thirst to travellers was alleviated by clusters of rays from the bright eyes of maidens, rays that shamed the currents of sweet, cold water, filled with the fragrance of cardamom, clove, saffron, camphor and musk, and flowing from the pitchers held in the lotus-like hands of the maidens, seated in the beautiful water-sheds made from the thick roots of vetiver mixed with marjoram, and built near the foot (covered with mounds of couch-like soft sand) of the clusters of newly sprouting mango trees, which constantly darkened the space of the quarters, and which looked even more charming because of the trickling drops of floral juice which created the illusion of thick, rain-filled clouds, brimming with abundant nectar.”
But, as any smart four-year old will tell you, there is a word in the English language that is even longer than any of the above. That word is “smiles” – because it has a mile between the first letter and the last. Ultimately, it all comes down to criteria.