Stringing letters together What is the longest English word? Word lovers have long been intrigued by this question. But the question itself raises others: should the word be found in a standard (or even comprehensive) English dictionary? If so, which dictionaries should one turn to, or acknowledge as being admissible? Can we accept geographic names? If so, must we restrict ourselves to such names as found only in English-speaking countries, or is the entire world fair game? Should we accept coined words found in English literature?
These and other problems made it impossible to give a direct answer to the question about the longest word until internet search engines arrived. Yet, certain words and names have stood out in the minds of older word devotees.
One example commonly quoted from the classics is the monstrous 27-letter honorificabilitudinitatibus, a Shakespearean term best translated into ordinary English as “the state of being able to achieve honours”. It is mentioned by Costard in Act V, Scene I of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Then there is the 28-letter antidisestablishmentarianism (a political position that originated in 19th-century Britain in opposition to proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England); and the 29-letter floccinaucinihilipilification (the act of estimating something as being worthless).
A number of scientific naming schemes can be used to generate technical terms that are arbitrarily long words. A famous one is the 45-letter pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease occurring in miners and caused by inhaling very fine silicate or quartz dust. This shows one thing – you can take a technical word to ridiculous lengths, and people have done so. The current champion remains a tryptophan synthetase-A protein, whose full expansion runs into a staggering 1,913 letters, and makes as much sense to read as a modem initialisation string.
If you found this whole discussion tiresome, and perhaps even developed an irrational fear of long words after reading this column, let’s just leave you with a diagnosis of hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.