Word Matters Podcast

The Longest Word

Word Matters, Episode 27

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This episode is all about dictionary myths and mysteries. Is the longest word the one you think it is? Probably not. Are some words harder to define than others? Undoubtedly. Are there multiple philosophies on how to even write a definition in the first place? You'll find out.

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, ginormous words. I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Among the perennial questions posed to people in the dictionary business is this: What is the longest word in the dictionary? There are a number of famous contenders, but is there a clear champion? Ammon, Neil, Peter, and I will lay out all the syllables for you.

There's a small set of questions that lexicographers get asked over and over and over again. One of them is: what is the longest word in the dictionary? Now, we all know there is no "the dictionary," so we can talk about what the longest word in Merriam-Webster's dictionaries are. The longest word in our unabridged dictionary is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Is that right?

Peter Sokolowski: Whoa.

Emily Brewster: The longest word in the merriamwebster.com dictionary is acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene. That one's got some hyphens in it, so it's not as impressive as pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

Ammon Shea: You can tell you've been shedding these words, as they say in the jazz parlance. You've been practicing.

Emily Brewster: I have. I have been practicing. It's true. None of these words are very useful, really, if we want to be honest about it, right?

Peter Sokolowski: They're sort of show horses, right?

Neil Serven: They have meanings in the dictionary, right? The pneumonoultramicroscopic... is supposed to be, what, a lung disease associated with inhaling coal or quartz, right?

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Ammon Shea: Yes. Supposed to be, yes. There has been some speculation in the past that this word was coined by pranksters with the goal of getting a very long word in through the dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh.

Ammon Shea: If it ends up being used is just a valid a way of word creation as any other way.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Tell that to the diagnosing physician.

Ammon Shea: Right, sure. He doesn't care where the word comes from. She doesn't care. If she's diagnosing somebody with this disease, it doesn't matter what the etymology is.

Emily Brewster: That's right. As far as defining goes, defining one of these very long words, it's generally not very interesting because they usually have a very narrow meaning. They're kind of easy.

Neil Serven: And they're usually based on some other word that's already part of the construction of the word, right? I think in terms of pneumonoultramicro-whatever, in our medical dictionary, it is "a pneumoconiosis caused by inhalation of various fine silicone or quartz dust." Then, you're going to chase down whatever a pneumoconiosis is, right?

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Neil Serven: People love kind of showing off knowing these long words. The fact that there's a word out there to describe long words, sesquipedalian-

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, there we go. I love that.

Neil Serven: ... which literally comes from roots meaning words a foot and a half long, sesqui meaning "one and a half," so the fact that this example exists actually fits. It is an aptronym I suppose, and then it fits its description, its own meaning very well.

Ammon Shea: I love when words like sesquipedalian has this kind of nominative determinism.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, sure.

Ammon Shea: They come to embody themselves.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Ammon Shea: It's charming.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a favorite word of mine. In the French, the Petit Robert, I asked our colleague Edouard Trouillez, who is an editor at the Petit Robert, sort of the equivalent of the Collegiate dictionary, a desk dictionary, a very serious academic dictionary with good etymologies, and their longest word is anticonstitutionnellement, anti-constitutionally in French. That's the longest word in the French standard desk dictionary.

Emily Brewster: It's no pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, that's for sure.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it's true that English is a Germanic language that likes to use compounding more than the Latin-based languages, even though that word is based on Latin and Greek parts, of course. But the longest word is usually not a common word, not a word that people will recognize. You'd have to then explain more as we would with a lung disease or antidisestablishmentarianism.

Neil Serven: People like to know it for the dictionary trivia, like the words with all five vowels in them or the... Facetiously is the one with the vowels in order, right?

Peter Sokolowski: Mm-hmm.

Neil Serven: Uncopyrightable is the longest word that does not repeat a letter. It's got all distinct letters in it. There's not one repeated letter in the word uncopyrightable. The dictionary has a lot of this fun trivia. I can't say that we as lexicographers really stop to note it so when it happens, it's that kind of thing that is kept on a record somewhere in the office, and then we have to go look it up if somebody asks. But it's just a lot of fun to kind of keep track of these things, yeah.

Ammon Shea: You guys just brought up an interesting question, and they don't let me near the defining words because I would do something bad to them. The three of you define words as your kind of bread and butter here. What is your favorite kind of word to define?

Neil Serven: There's favorite because they're easy and favorite because they're challenging. Words that are solid objects are usually the kind of word that is easiest to define, I think.

Peter Sokolowski: Concrete, yeah. Yeah, concrete nouns-

Neil Serven: Concrete nouns.

Peter Sokolowski: ... are pretty straightforward.

Emily Brewster: Those are boring.

Peter Sokolowski: And they tend to be boring, yeah.

Neil Serven: Abstract concepts are a little harder, obviously. That's more of a challenge.

Peter Sokolowski: A lot harder. I mean, sometimes it can be really difficult.

Emily Brewster: I have a love-hate relationship with the words that are difficult to define. I want to be in there, but then I can get sick of them.

Ammon Shea: Right, so once you're like three weeks into run, you start to get the definers headache coming on with-

Emily Brewster: Peter Gilliver of the OED told me once that he spent nine months on run.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, I know.

Emily Brewster: I have never spent that long on a word because we do not write historical dictionaries, which means that we do not... As a definer, I do not have to find the earliest example of every particular meaning of a word, so it can go much more quickly. But I have spent weeks and weeks on a very particular word. The word disposition, which I did a full revision of disposition for the Unabridged dictionary, that took a long time. It had military uses, it's had legal uses, it had one referring to organ stops on a musical organ. It was just a very, very complex word. A word like put or go, those are fun.

Peter Sokolowski: The hard words really are often these really short function words like articles and verbs like get and set. Emily has done a bunch of them. That really is kind of a different job, almost.

Emily Brewster: Well, I think Neil did some, too. I worked on them mostly when I was working on the Learner's Dictionary, which was a dictionary that we made for non-native English speakers. We did full treatments of all of these very, very common words. But the more common a word is, I think the more challenging it is to define in general.

Ammon Shea: Right, and so in a broad sense, the longer a word is, the less likely it is to have this highly polysemous, multi-sense...

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, yeah.

Neil Serven: Right. A word like pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is not going to vary in meaning much.

Peter Sokolowski: This is the paradox. A very technical noun which might be a hard word, that is to say either an obscure learned word that is only used by specialists or hard to spell, often because it's got classical roots, those are the easiest words to write definitions for.

Ammon Shea: Right, like agathokakological which means "composed of both good and evil." That's not getting a lot of semantic broadening as the ages go on.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, no.

Ammon Shea: It's remained remarkably precise for about three or 400 years.

Peter Sokolowski: But it reminds me of, for example, another word that many people think of as a long word or the longest word is antidisestablishmentarianism, which is a pretty easy word to define. It's just a word that we find is not really used to carry meaning. It's usually used to cite itself as a long word. And antidisestablishmentarianism is often cited as the longest word in the dictionary. In fact, we don't enter it because it's so infrequently used.

Ammon Shea: But what about supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? That's taken on a kind of broader meaning. It is used as an example of a long word, but it also has some other lexical content, doesn't it?

Neil Serven: It does have a semantic application, certainly.

Ammon Shea: Right, right.

Neil Serven: It can be simply like "super." It can mean something like, as a fun way of saying the word super or something.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. The fact is it's not in a Merriam-Webster dictionary yet. The reason is because it didn't have a specific, discernible, consistent meaning. However, that rule was really established for saving space in a print dictionary, as were so many other rules that have to do with entering a word in the dictionary. Because we now have essentially infinite space with an online dictionary, and because this is a real word and it's used and known by many people, there's lots to say and know about it. Where did it come from, how is it typically spelled, all the rest of it... I think it does deserve entry and probably will be entered in our dictionaries at some point.

Emily Brewster: By our modern criteria, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious qualifies for entry. It's really just low enough down on the list that maybe it just, nobody's gotten around to it quite.

Ammon Shea: Right, but antidisestablishmentarianism, that's not ready to go in, right?

Peter Sokolowski: No.

Emily Brewster: Nobody uses it.

Peter Sokolowski: Establishmentarianism refers to the support of the head of state, that is to say the Queen of England, as also the head of the Church of England. And disestablismentarianism is advocacy for the separation of the church and state, and then antidisestablishmentarianism, of course, is opposition to the opposition. There are some words that are just sort of fun to say and they're word lover's words. I mean, schadenfreude strikes me as one of those. People love to say it. It's also a great spelling bee word.

Ammon Shea: But that has a lot of application every day, a huge amount of natural use.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely, absolutely.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: But it also shows that you're a kind of a word lover because that you've acquired this one.

Ammon Shea: Right. Callipygian, having buttocks that are nicely shaped. People really don't use that in everyday life. They like to know that the word exists.

Peter Sokolowski: There's callipygian and steatopygian, and we give a variant of callipygian which is callipygous.

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Emily Brewster: How do you spell that?

Peter Sokolowski: C-A-L-L-I-P-Y-G-O-U-S.

Emily Brewster: Huh.

Ammon Shea: There's also callipyge, which is the noun.

Peter Sokolowski: That's the noun, yeah.

Emily Brewster: A callipyge is a person with shapely buttocks?

(music break)

Emily Brewster: We'll be back with more on long words and a few of our defining secrets. You're listening to Word Matters from Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

(music break)

Ammon Shea: What's the worst word you've ever had to define? What's the word that you look back on and gives you nightmares?

Emily Brewster: I did come to hate the word disposition when I was mostly done with that project. There are so many examples because it's a very common word and it's a word, especially when it was used in its legal uses and military uses, so many usage examples to sort through and then to filter them out and put them at the right senses, and then to figure out what was the best way to communicate those meanings and had this meaning shifted significantly or is this citation just an outlier, I did not like that word by the time I was done with it.

Ammon Shea: That restores my faith in the order of the universe, Emily. Thank you.

Emily Brewster: You're welcome.

Neil Serven: Peter touched upon the decisions a definer has to make. There's these terms that we use for when we talk shop about how we define and whether or not to make something a specific sense or not. We call it lumping and splitting, right? Lumping is when we kind of decide that a broad definition is going to be enough to do the work of defining and covering all aspects of a word, or do we then want to divide into further subsenses and further subsenses so that we cover each individually and with enough distinction, which essentially is what defining is. If you think about what the job is, you're trying to make things fine. You are trying to separate one meaning from another. But of course, when it comes to the real world and how we use language, you can keep doing that and doing that and doing that. It's like Zeno's paradox. You start on C and then you're never going to get to D if you keep doing this, so you have to kind of decide when to stop going down rabbit holes and when you have covered all aspects of meaning enough with what you have put on the page. So I would say I'm maybe more toward the lumper end of the philosophical spectrum.

Emily Brewster: I am a reformed splitter. My inclination is to split. I temper that by trying to lump because I think it often serves the reader more to have things lumped. But I like constantly pushing back against my impulse to split.

Neil Serven: I also find myself using illustrations to do more of the splitting.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Neil Serven: I feel like that covers so much of the work that you might be trying to get with a very, very fine definition. If you give a kind of a lumpy definition and then show a couple of illustrations that are distinct enough from each other, that then sends the message that there are these specific applications that you are going to find and then aren't really worth putting into defining language, but are worth recording for the sake of language reference.

Emily Brewster: You want to write the definition broadly enough that then the illustrations do the splitting for you.

Neil Serven: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: It covers it but... When I was working on meta, it ended up with two senses. At one point, I had about five and then just found a way to squeeze them together.

Ammon Shea: As a way of kind of bringing this around to the topic of that we started with, which is what is the longest word in the dictionary, I think an interesting correlate to that is what is the longest entry in the dictionary. Usually, in most dictionaries, it is these short words. It's either go or set or run or put. Which one is it so far, do you know?

Peter Sokolowski: I believe with us it's set.

Ammon Shea: Set, yeah. Typically, it's set. If not, put. In most dictionaries, it's whichever one of set, put, and run has been defined most recently because they're all constantly growing.

Peter Sokolowski: And it's hard to count, but I think set is something like nine columns of text in our Unabridged dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Now, that's also interesting in that set is closer to the end of the alphabet, which means that the definers are all suffering from alphabet fatigue-

Ammon Shea: Right, they just want to go home.

Emily Brewster: ... by that point in the dictionary making. So _setv could probably be longer.

Neil Serven: Especially in S, where S is like the hardest letter.

Peter Sokolowski: It is the hardest letter. Yeah, absolutely.

Emily Brewster: S is a beast.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: If you have a question or comment, email us wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. For the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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