Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

The Longest Word?

Years ago a friend of mine amazed people at parties with his ability to say and spell the longest word in the English language: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

These days, I use it at school as a way to practice dealing with unfamiliar words since it seems so intimidating to the kids, but when broken down is really easy to understand. Via Wikipedia:

  • pneumono = related to lungs (Latin, from Greek)
  • ultra = beyond (Latin, as in “ultraviolet”)
  • microscopic = extremely small (Latin/Old English, from Greek mikron, small, and skopos, view)
  • silico = silica (Latin)
  • volcano = volcano (Latin)
  • coni = related to dust (Greek: konis, dust)
  • osis = disease / condition (Greek)

So basically, a lung disease caused by breathing the silica dust from volcanoes.

Though the word has been included in dictionaries, it is considered a ‘fake’ word that has never actually been used in medical literature. Apparently the only purpose for this word is to answer the question, “What’s the longest English word?”

According to A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia, the longest non-scientific word other than the nonsense word Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is floccinaucinihilipilification followed by antidisestablishmentarianism.

Ultimately, going back to Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, we wind up begging the question: Is a word a word if it’s only ever used as an example of a word?

Perhaps I could answer by saying, “Bkk-de skinb plewd blerty uloufopoly,” but then I’d just be making up nonsense words.

I’d have to remember that if I were suffering from a case of Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, I could use that term to describe my condition even if my doctors only referred to it as silicosis.

My verdict: if the word can be used to convey accurate meaning, then it is a word, and if you disagree, then bkk-de skinb plewd blerty uloufopoly to you!

5 Comments

  1. I take issue with your statement that Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is a nonsense word. Its use gives it meaning, if only to mean “ain’t it fun to be silly.”

  2. I agree with Jessica. Plus it provided me with one of my favorite titles ever for a home-made cassette spanning the career of John Cale: “Super Cale is Fragile/Vicious in 90 Minutes Doses.”

  3. Jessica, You’re right. This post in fact was mostly written in a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-alistic spirit, but I do think the nonsense factor is what makes it so fun.

    George, I love the Cale compilation title.

  4. George is my new hero.

  5. Wow, thanks, Jessica–that’s a lot of pressure.

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