The Longest Words in Literature

What’s the longest ever word in literature? The longest word in the English language (leaving literature to one side for a moment) is a staggering 189,819 letters long. Or rather, it is and it isn’t.

The chemical formula for the protein otherwise known as titin runs to 189,819 letters, but whether this constitutes a ‘word’ is a moot point. Science abounds in long formulae like this, but are such formations really ‘words’? We have to turn to literature to find the bona fide, non-specialist tonguebusters.

Welsh signThere is a word for those who are scared of long words: hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia. There is also a word for somebody who is fond of using long words: sesquipedalian. It stems from the Latin for ‘a foot and a half’, and was first used to denote someone who is given to longwordiness in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 work Cranford (or at least this is the earliest instance the Oxford English Dictionary has yet managed to unearth). But then literature itself can be a place where long words can be formed, disseminated, and popularised. Take the work of James Joyce, for instance, whose Finnegans Wake (1939) contains several 100-letter words, and even one of 101 letters. On the very first page of the novel, Joyce uses the 100-letter word Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk, which is meant to denote the symbolic thunderclap which accompanied the Fall of Adam and Eve (a meaning that is imbued with greater significance in light of Joyce’s lifelong fear of thunder).

Meanwhile, Thomas Love Peacock coined two words, osteosarchaematosplanchnochondroneuromuelous (44 letters) and osseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary (51 letters), in his novel Headlong Hall (1816). The words roughly translate as ‘of bone, flesh, blood, organs, gristle, nerve, and marrow’ and describe the human body.

Earlier in literature, we find an interesting 50-letter word in Francois Rabelais’ sixteenth-century work Gargantua and Pantagruel. The word appears in the title of a made-up book that appears on the library shelves in Rabelais’ ribald tale. The title of the book is Antipericatametaanaparcircumvolutiorectumgustpoops of the Coprofied. All we’ll say here is that this title – and the long word in it – reflect the scatological flavour of the book as a whole.

Shakespeare himself used a nonce-word, honorificabilitudinitatibus, in his early play Love’s Labour’s Lost. It refers to the state or position of being able to achieve honours. This word is the longest in English to comprise alternating consonants and vowels (which, if nothing else, is a fine pub quiz fact). The word is known as a ‘hapax legomenon’ – a word or phrase which appears only once in an author’s work. This nonce-word was used by Baconians – those who claim that Francis Bacon wrote the plays, rather than the man from Stratford – to support their theory: honorificabilitudinitatibus is an anagram of hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi, which translates into English as ‘these plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world’ (simple, eh?).

However, did Shakespeare coin this word, after all? Honorificabilitudinitatibus appears in a work by Thomas Nashe – the first person to use the word ‘email’ in 1594 – in 1599, shortly after Shakespeare wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost, and earlier variants of this long word had been in circulation since the Middle Ages.

Although from a musical rather than a book, the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is worth mentioning here because, whilst it was used in the 1964 film Mary Poppins, similarly spelled variants of the word, such as supercalafajalistickespeealadojus, existed earlier, since at least 1949.

The longest word in all of literature, however, is this offering from Aristophanes’ play Assemblywomen: Lopado­­temacho­­selacho­­galeo­­kranio­­leipsano­­drim­­hypo­­trimmato­­silphio­­parao­­melito­­katakechy­­meno­­kichl­­epi­­kossypho­­phatto­­perister­­alektryon­­opte­­kephallio­­kigklo­­peleio­­lagoio­­siraio­­baphe­­tragano­­pterygon. At 183 letters, it exceeds even Joyce’s lengthy coinages. It is the name for a fictional food dish containing meat, fish, and wine. Yum!

Image: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch station sign © Chris McKenna (Thryduulf), via Wikimedia Creative Commons.

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38 thoughts on “The Longest Words in Literature

  1. Gosh that was exhausting. I see someone deciding to write a novel using ONLY words of over 10 letters. And then this being offered as a sort of literary detention and deterrent for those of us prone to long-windedness and logorrhoea. We would very soon start using short words and phrases.

    And lets think of the challenge involved if the 10 letter minim word book got adapted into an audio-book of radio serialisation. Exhausted, tongue-twisted readers with sore throats!

    • Ah that’s interesting – I confess my knowledge of German is minuscule, so I’d be interested to hear more about this – there must be some good German Joyces out there who have produced exceptionally long compound formations…

      • A quick Google has come up with these gems:
        Kaftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung which means
        “motor vehicle liability insurance” (though that seems a bit of a cheat to me — two compound words hyphenated);
        Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, which translates as “Danube steamship company captain”;
        and Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest German word in everyday use. It means “insurance companies providing legal protection.”

        None of these are very Joycean though, sadly.

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  5. Am extremely surprised that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious was in use prior to Disney’s Mary P. My goodness. And surely those Baconites must have shrivelled ; ) to learn that their convincing phrase lending support for their case predates its supposed author.

    Interesting post. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: Gwen & Kate’s Library: Post Number 100! | Gwen & Kate's Library

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