Envoy: A Short Discussion of Even Longer Words

Most sentences concerning pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis—like this one—are less occupied with the lung disease caused by inhalation of ultra-fine particles of silica volcanic dust than with the effort lungs must make to pronounce it. At 45 letters, it is indisputably the longest word in the English language—depending on whom you ask.

The English lexicon is a treasure trove of curios and perplexities. Some one million words strong by the standard of many dictionaries, most speakers know only ten to 60 thousand of them. Half of all speech and literature is comprised of just ten words and their derivatives: the, be, to, of, a, in, that, have and I, in order of frequency. The average number of unique words used daily by speakers is less than one thousand. What remains is an often confounding and occasionally laughable consortium of obscurities. Most of these entries almost never see the light of day. 

But a lucky few are glorified for their peculiarity: strange combinations of consonants and vowels, offbeat phonetic renderings, arcane definitions with obscene double meanings in modernity. And then there is the tongue-tied title of the English language’s longest word, a crown that has managed to bypass the desks of lexicographers and enter mainstream interest as the simultaneous epitome of the absurd and wondrous nature of the second-most spoken language in the world. But searching for the winning word unlocks the Pandora’s box of lexicography and a debate at the core of language itself: what constitutes a word? Determining the longest word becomes a trek through linguistic philosophy that zigzags from Plato to the editorial board of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). There is no one-word answer. 

But pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoco-niosis is as good of a word as any with which to begin. The entry was born February 3, 1935 in New York at the annual meeting of the National Puzzlers’ League, an organization devoted to word play and word games. Self-described as “The National Intellectual Pastime of America,” the League, founded in 1883, predates crossword puzzles and does not recognize such mainstream wordplay as an important puzzling experience. It does, however, recognize pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which its president Everett M. Smith invented for the sole purpose of laying claim to the longest word. It was unveiled at the 1935 gathering and the members present ratified its creation. The next day The New York Herald Tribune published an article declaring that electrophotomicrographically had been triumphed over. By 1939 the name for the lung disease could be found in a Merriam-Webster dictionary. 

The word remains the longest in a dictionary, and on this merit it is often granted the title of longest word. But this gives rise to another problem: which dictionary is definitive? The OED is less kind to pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, branding it as “an artificial long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust,” without including it in print editions. At 29 letters, the longest entry lurking in the OED is floccinaucinihilipilification, “the estimation of something as worthless.” If that seems to be a convenient description for an exceedingly clunky word, the definition is no coincidence. Frustrated Latin students at Eton College, tired of having to learn seemingly endless lists of word stems with nearly identical meanings, strung together four stems—floccus, a wisp; naucum, a trifle; nihil, nothing; pilus, insignificance—to create a word that begrudgingly defines itself. That was in 1714. 

But the coinage of purposefully long words can be traced back to 390 BCE, when the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes introduced the 171-letter Lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimhypotrimmatosilphioparaomelitokatakechymenokichlepikossyphophattoperisteralektryonoptekephalliokigklopeleiolagoiosiraiobaphetraganopterygon, a meal—and word—comprised of seventeen different Greek delicacies. It is a word that even Google does not care to handle, advising that the search term “is too long a word. Try using a shorter word.” Writers have devoted ink to cumbersome length ever since. James Joyce offers Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbr-onntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk, a 101-letter word on the first page of Finnegan’s Wake that is often defined as “the symbolic thunderclap caused by the fall of Adam and Eve.” Even Shakespeare chimed in with a 27-letter contestant in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”: 

 

“O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words.

I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;

for thou art not long by the head as

honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier

swallowed than a flap-dragon.”

 

The literary title goes to Nigel Tomm, a neo-Dadaist of sorts who in 2008 self-published a 3,609,750-letter word spanning 812 pages in “The Blah Story, Volume 19” which he defines as the “current day or date between the real and imagined today.” The word contains within it all the aforementioned longest-word contenders. If Tomm’s first word is accepted, then the second-longest word can be found in “The Blah Story, Volume 10” at 2,403,109 letters. That word means “something like a girl or a bitch.” Large amounts of both words are comprised of the repeated use of blah.

Tomm’s mockery of the longest-word debate illuminates the problem faced by lexicographers who differentiate between authenticity and artificiality. The phrase “nonsense word” appears to be inherently hypocritical; a nonsense word must still be a word. Any utterance is then justifiably acceptable. What makes Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock any less legitimate than the Loch Ness Monster? 

Several things, according to the OED. An official word should have permanent and measurable social significance in terms of both meaning and popularity. To the OED, the slang word of the week is not a word, but the slang word of the decade very much is. There is no timetable for existence or usage required to slip inside the OED’s hallowed covers. Some words build momentum slowly over many years. Others gain the necessary traction in months. The OED oversees such progress with its Oxford English Corpus, a growing electronic collection of over two billion words that contains “sentences or short extracts drawn from a huge variety of writing, from song lyrics and popular fiction to scientific journals,” according to the OED. Emerging words can be tracked for ubiquity and standardization with the Corpus, giving lexicographers a measuring stick for which words should be stamped with an official seal of approval. Words that fail to make the cut are entered into a word vault, a filing system of rejected words containing entries stretching back to the time J.R.R. Tolkien was an editor of the OED. 

The OED leaves the unofficial words for the linguistic philosophers to trouble over. Plato believed in a degree of naturalness to phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound. Disputing complete conventionalism, he argued that the sounds in a word like love describe the feeling of love for an inherent natural reason, and not “the neck of a giraffe” or “Chapter Eleven bankruptcy” or an infinite number of other possible things. While many popular sources still echo this belief in inherent meaning, no linguist would support it today—even Plato eventually came around to the idea that social conventions influenced the creation of words and their attached meanings. One of the most important features of a language system is that its signs are arbitrary. If the legitimacy of various words were not already in question, Tomm might have never found reason to construct his anti-art behemoth.  If blah were not socially viewed as a construct of apathy, it might have never become a dominating set of phonemes in his “longest word.” 

Another aspect of the debate circles around morphemes--the smallest components of a word with semantic meaning. Unreadable, for example, has three morphemes: the stem read and the affixes un and able. Combined together, they form a word with practical social meaning. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is comprised of far more than three morphemes, but it is still created with the same fundamental building blocks. The only qualification the word lacks is the dignified stamp of authenticity. It was created for the deliberate purpose of being the longest word. But is one purpose any more worthy than another? All words are formed for some purpose; to discriminate against artificial words suggests that the creator of a word must be selfless. Words must be formed, then, for the sole purpose of describing a concept or entity, and have no intentional auxiliary ramifications. This divide of structure and function in language taps into an ongoing debate among linguists. Why do we have language? How did it begin and how does it evolve? How does human planning and conscious decision shape this evolution? And when crowning the longest word, should we care? What happens when a scholarly discovery or invention produces a new word that is remarkably long? Should the word’s inventor undergo a lie detector test to ensure there were no ulterior motives? Incidentally, lie detector tests have been proven to be accurate only when subjects use “real” words. Would the pre-baptized word need to be banned, or does its creator’s belief in its realness give it all the validity it needs?

One simple measure to gauge authenticity is to analyze the contexts in which social publications utilize such words, pitting actual usage against attempted codification. Many “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” words (which, at 34 letters, is defined in Mary Poppins as “something to say when you have nothing to say”) are discussed more often in reference to length than meaning, indicating artificiality. Of course, even authentic words will at times be written about in the context of unwieldy length due to popular intrigue. The National Puzzler’s League might argue that simply more people are interested in big words than obscure lung diseases. But for some words, like Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, the imbalance is overwhelming. Tomm’s monsters have never appeared outside of their original publications. A blissfully self-aware entry at 35 letters is hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, “the fear of extremely long words.” Floccinaucinihilipilification, though deliberately manufactured, has come nearest to authentic use, achieving a life beyond tongue-in-cheek discussions of its size.

Other causes, however, have also been found for dismissal. One potential contender is the 189,819-letter chemical name for titin, the largest known protein with an empirical formula of C132983H211861N36149O40883S693. Lexicographers disqualify the names for chemical compounds as verbal formulae that relate physical chemical compositions and are thus not actual English words. But verbal formulae still describe entities; they are built of phonemes. A chair can be broken down into trillions of molecules that can each be broken down into verbal formulae. If the chair is nothing more than the proper combination of these trillions of non-words, what qualifies chair as a word? The line might at times be drawn blurry, but for the lexicographer, it must still be drawn. 

One place that has fallen on the wrong side of that line is Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, New Zealand, an otherwise inconspicuous hill that stands a mere 1,001 feet high.  Its name, which roughly means “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one,” is the longest of any location in an English-speaking country at 85 letters. It is usually thrown out of contention for either being a proper noun or of questionable authenticity as a place name.

So what word remains standing amongst the linguistic carnage? Amazingly, the one that every eight-year-old can recite: antidisestablishmentarianism, “the political opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England in 19th-century Britain.” At 28 letters, it remains the longest non-technical, authentic and undisputed entry that can be found in almost all major dictionaries and is popularly known as the English language’s longest word. Unless, that is, one could be a pseudoantidisestablishmentarianist. But that matter will be left to politics. Lexicographers deserve a chance to catch their breaths.