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.
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.