Friday, 6 February 2015

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. Sadly, without a True Tale by way of illustration.


Sess-kwi-pee-dey-lee-uhn: Adjective: given to using long words; (of a word) containing many syllables; Noun: a polysyllabic word; someone who uses such.

From Latin: sesquipedalis, from sesqui-, (semis, a half unit, plus que, and, so and a half) +pedal (from ped or pes, foot), thus giving us “a foot and a half long”, the -an suffix (or here –ian) being one who engages in such, as in Librarian or Barbarian (these two examples being in no way connected). It was that funloving japester, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace, who first came up with the term around 19 BC in his Ars Poetica, when he was having a satirical pop at the users of such by saying, “Proicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba” (“He throws aside his paint pots and his words that are a foot and a half long” – a comment that would probably have had them rolling in the aisles back then), thereby, and with (you might say) poetic irony, leaving one all of his very own to posterity.

But what does this tell us about the size of the plates of meat on the Ancient Romans, the pes, or foot, being their standard unit of measurement? We’re all well aware that they spent time yomping up and down their plumb-straight roads, ravaging and laying waste, but did they do it all marching on massive size thirteeners? Historians tell us that the Roman foot was slightly less than our imperial measurement, at some 295.9mm or 11 and 21/32 inches, which makes for pretty clodhopping ones nonetheless, especially as research has revealed our own size tenner to be a paltry (by comparison, anyhow) 270mm or 10⅝”. Both, however, pale into insignificance when it comes to medieval England, when the foot was considered to be 13.2 inches and the sort of appendage you’d be well-advised not to attempt warming on the wife’s back of a chilly winter’s evening.

Related forms: sesquipedal, adjective; sesquipedality, sesquipedalianism, sesquipedalism, nouns. Other words with the sesqui- root include: sesquicentennial, a period of a hundred and fifty years, or an anniversary or celebration of such; sesquiplane, of course, one of those biplanes you see where one wing has not more than half the surface area of the other; and sesquialtera, a stop on an organ, so we’re told, or another term for hemiola, a rhythmic device involving, for example, two notes in the time of three, though one exclusively for the music buffs there, we fear.

Talking of buffs, most other sesqui- words belong in the realms of our sciencey colleagues, seeing they’re mainly used for compounds, including: sesquioxide, an oxide containing three atoms of oxygen to two of another, as in aluminum oxide,
Al2O3; sesquicarbonate; sesquihydrate; and our old pal, sesquiterpene. Right at this moment, those very fellows, by which we mean all you physicists, chemists and other boffins, will be sitting there with supercilious and mildly infuriating cheesy grins on their faces, snidely proclaiming, “We knew that already, matey, no need to tell us.” Well, really! Just because you understood what happened that time when the elementary particle (or fundamental particle, you might say) went into the Catholic church and sat down to wait for the service to start, only to find the priest has spotted him and is now thundering inexorably in his direction, shouting at him to “Get out! We don’t need your sort in here,” to which the particle replies that he absolutely has to stay, no matter what the bloke in the biretta thinks about it. Obviously, the good padre is none too happy at this outrageous impertinence and demands to know “why, pray, is your presence so essential to our proceedings, if you don’t mind one’s enquiring?” (He was a bit sarcy, even for a priest). To which the particle replies, “Well, you see, father, I’m a Higgs Boson – you can’t have mass without me.”

So, what is there, precisely, for sesquipedalians everywhere to get their tonsils around? Well, for a start off, there’s one of the longest in the English language in floccinaucinihilipilification, weighing in with a mighty twenty nine letters and the longest unchallenged nontechnical word, though some folk get a bit sniffy about it because it was coined. Let’s all try it together, shall we? Flok-sin-aw-sin-ill-uh-pil-uh-fee-kay-shun. And, when you finally have managed to get that lot out, it turns out it means simply the estimation of something as valueless (they can’t be referring to blogs, surely?). The word is apparently the handiwork of a bunch of students at Eton, who coined it in a spirit of jocularity – yes, highly amusing, chaps, and good luck in government – but, if one might be permitted something of a decidedly non-public schoolboy sneer at this point, this is merely so much braggadocio and fanfaronade, seeing all they’ve done is to take four words from the famous Eton Latin Grammar – flocci (a wisp of wool), nauci (a trifle), nihili (nothing) and pilifi (a hair), all basically meaning for nothing or at a small price – and then stitch them together into one ribtickling mouthful. To us Northerners, it’s much the same as if we were to come up with a word like Craftybackofbikeshedwoodbinemomentariousness to describe the sensual pleasure of experiencing illicit tobacco, isn’t it? And a darn sight more letters to boot.

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, that’s another. Forty five letters and the longest word in a major non-technical dictionary, this being a form of silicosis created by ultra-microscopic particles but, unfortunately, purists wouldn’t even spit in the direction of this one, seeing that it both is a technical term and was coined, for no better reason than to be the longest word. Besides which, the disease already had a name: pneumoconiosis. It was the ever-ready wit of Everett M. Smith, president of the National Puzzlers' League, who came up with it in 1935 but, dare one suggest it, isn’t it the case that, put pithily into one blunt four-word sentence: “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is a floccinaucinihilipilification.” Makes you wonder what the definition of “Puzzler” might be in this case, though …


Antidisestablishmentarianism, with twenty eight indisputably solid letters, remains the longest non-coined and non-technical word in English, though we’d best not get into what they mean by coined or technical, seeing it’s got more than a whiff of both, we’d’ve said. Disestablishment, of course, was the term for the separation of the state from the church, so antidisestablishmentarians were very much the nay-sayers of those times (1860s). Bizarrely enough, antidisestablishment-arianism has been used in not one but two songs, by Duke Ellington (wrongly) and by Eminem (Almost Famous), though even he fought shy of attempting to rhyme it, understandably enough. Equally as bizarrely, it was something as miniscule as a protein that provided us with the longest word ever coined (by you chemists, of course, up to your old tricks again), though it is decidedly a technical term and there’s hot dispute as to whether it actually is a word or not. It contains a staggering 189,819 letters and apparently takes three hours from start to finish to utter, if you were thinking of giving it a go. Believe us on this one, written down as a number like that just doesn’t convey the full horror of the thing: you have to see it for yourself. And imagine just how long it took to think up. Especially given that we already had a term for it: titin.

Even the Bard couldn’t resist a stab at the old sesquipedalian game himself, managing to shoehorn the word honorificabilitudinitatibus into Act V, Scene I of Love’s Labour’s Lost. That’s got a healthy twenty eight letters to it and is the longest in the language to have alternating consonants and vowels, though, sadly, we’re going to have to disqualify this one on the grounds of it being medieval and Latin, even if it can be translated as “the state of being able to achieve honours” (corrupt and fat-walleted, then, we assume). What Costard, the comic rustic (who, according to TV stereotypes, would have to be played by an amusingly thick Northerner) actually comes out with is: “thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.” The joke being that flap-dragon was a game involving trying to eat hot raisins from a bowl of burning brandy, which, much like our erstwhile Twister, sounded like lots of fun but never was, though at least with Twister you got to keep your eyebrows.

The Swan of Avon only used the word once in the whole of his oeuvre because otherwise he’d have been in grave danger of having to crack the same joke over and over, and you might as well be writing On The Buses in that case. This, of course, was a red rag to all sesquipedalians, who at once had to come up with a suitable term for such a phenomenon: hapax legomenon. That’s (very roughly) Greek for said only once, meaning a word or phrase that appears just once in a text, the works of an author, or the written record of a language. Not to be confused, however, with nonce words, which are neologisms (not in the dictionary) invented or used for a single occasion, often to solve an immediate problem of communication (by which we don’t mean the time-honoured tradition of getting over a language barrier by the simple expedient of bellowing in a very loud voice, “Do-you-speak-English?”) The term comes from the phrase “for the nonce” (for now) and is said to have been coined by James Murray who, up until his death in 1915 was primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and in the perfect position to bung in whatsoever he wanted. Much as with dictionaries, then: nepotism always comes before nonce words

Nonce words can be meaningless and disposable, though they can still be useful, like when attempting to establish the level of a child’s language skills, a practice that has spawned quite a variety (all genuine ones) of them, including: wug; blicket; pimwit; speff; tulver; fendle; and gazzer. It seems to us, though, that we really should be making a lot more use of such pearls of language in everyday speech. Take pimwit, for example: does that not exactly describe the sort of perisher that boards a packed commuter train, then he (or, distressingly often, she) produces a mobile phone and proceeds to indulge in a cacophonous multi-decibel soliloquy, commencing with “I’m on the train” and only terminating with the phrase, “I’ll ring you back; I’m getting off now,” giving rise to the most deplorable of unchristian thoughts, such as: “if that blicket speff doesn’t shut his gazzer soon, he’s going to get such a tulver in the fendles that they’ll swell up like a couple of wugs.”

Just time for a quick look at some instances of actual sesquipedalian naming, which we fear is as close as we’ll get to a True Tale this time round, but where better to start than with places, which can only mean Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauo-tamateaturipukakapikimaungahoro-nukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, New Zealand, sporting a triumphant ninety seven letters. It seems that they must have adopted the age-old apocryphal method of coming up with a suitable appellation for the place: “we’ll go over there, pitch the tent and then when we look out next morning, first thing we see, that’s what we’ll name it.” Their luck was clearly out, because it means is: “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.” That’s all you need, isn’t it? Some big-kneed mountaineering lothario turning up to get everyone out of bed with the skirling of his wretched nose flute. Still, let’s look on the bright side: if he hadn’t showed up, being New Zealand, it would probably now be called Threesheepgrazing. 

As for people, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s dad (that’d be the Old Pretender, of course) made a fair old stab at the naming game when he came up with Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart to saddle his lad with (isn’t one of those a bit of  a girl’s name?). But Don José Ruiz y Blasco went one better (or several) with his effort of Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso for his artist son. Even so, the Biscuit-taker-in-Chief must surely be the old man of this particular gentleman, who dubbed his boy with the longest personal name ever used (and watch carefully, especially at the end):

Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorffvoralternwarengewissenhaftschaferswessenschafewarenwoh-lgepflegeundsorgfaltigkeitbeschutzenvonangreifendurchihrraubgierigfeindewelchevoralternzwolftausendjahresvorandieerscheinenwanderersteerdemenschderraumschiffgebrauchlichtalsseinursprungvonkraftgestartseinlangefahrthinzwischensternartigraumaufdersuchenachdiesternwelchegehabtbewohnbarplantetenkreisedrehensichundwohinderneurassevonverstandigmenschlichkeitkonntefortplanzenundsicherfreuenanlebenslanglichfreudeundruhemitnichteinfurchtvorangreifenvonandererintelligentgeschopfsvonhinzwischensternartigraum, Senior.

That’s 746 letters including one name for every letter of the alphabet in the right order, followed by a whole plethora of German strung together which, we’re told, means: 
Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenberger-dorff[s] who before ages were conscientious shepherds whose sheep were well tended and diligently protected against attackers who by their rapacity were enemies who 12,000 years ago appeared from the stars to the humans by spaceships with light as an origin of power, started a long voyage within starlike space in search for the star which has habitable planets orbiting and whither the new race of reasonable humanity could thrive and enjoy lifelong happiness and tranquillity without fear of attack from other intelligent creatures from within starlike space.

Not so much a name as the entire family history and, quite frankly, some of it appears to be rather less than believable. But did you spot the critical bit, right at the end there? That’s right: Senior! Which can only mean he managed to get his own back on the world (and all races of a reasonable humanity out there in the lonely wastes of the Universe) by inflicting the exact same punishment on his own lad, except with a Junior instead, just to avoid any confusion. Bet the vicar at the christening was thrilled when he turned up with that. Let’s hope he was charging by the hour.

Obviously, the shortest word in the language is nanosecond …

[The position of image of David Tennant in Love’s Labour’s Lost is in no way meant to imply any connection whatsoever with the comment about Northerners in the adjacent paragraph: we wish to make clear that we have nothing but the very greatest respect for this distinguished and gifted actor]

Horace reads before Maecenas: Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Roman Caligae: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sesquiplane: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Higgs Event: By Lucas Taylor ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Bullingdon Boys: Youtube
Lung X-Ray: [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Disraeli: By Cornelius Jabez Hughes, British (1819 - 1884, London, England London, England) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Love’s Labour’s Lost:
James Murray: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mobile: By 2007Computex_e21Forum-MartinCooper.jpg: Rico Shen derivative work: PowellS (2007Computex_e21Forum-MartinCooper.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5 tw (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Sheep: Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Young Pretender: "Bonnie Prince Charlie" by John Pettie, (1898) oil on canvas) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Shepherdess: By Eugene Verboeckhoven (Sotheby's) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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