Friday - - Leisure -

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.

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