They’re an orgy of consonants and syllables, of abstruse meanings and highly specialized use. But are the longest words in our language actually words?
Krulwich Wonders, a science blog on NPR, posed that question recently, listing some of the key contenders for the title of biggest mouthful. Among the finalists was honorificabilitundinitatibus, a 27-letter word known to have been used just once in written form, in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost by a clown arrested for getting naughty with a milkmaid. The word translates from Latin as “the state of being able to achieve honors.” As Krulwich points out, we should probably disqualify it from the contest. It’s used during a speech about wordiness, suggesting old William created it just to be wordy.
(More on TIME.com: Hangman, Spare That Word: The English Purge Their Language.)
Another front-runner was antidisestablishmentarianism, the 28-letter, 12-syllable word describing the political position, originating in 19th century Britain, that opposed the disestablishment of the Church of England. Krulwich, perhaps less convincingly here, dismisses it as “just a bundle of suffixes and prefixes piled up into a little attention-grabbing hummock.” Other discounted rejects include supercalifragilisticexpialidocious—the 34-letter word that means absolutely nothing but gave Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews something to sing about in Mary Poppins. And the chemical compound for the tobacco mosaic virus: C785H1220N212O248S2. When written out, it begins glutaminylphenylalanylval….and carries on for 1,160 more letters. Unfortunately for that virus, the Guinness Book of World Records has determined that tryptophan is an even bigger molecule (in terms of letters anyway).
Of course, considering molecules for the longest word is kind of cray cray. Sure, science-speak uses elements of English, but English it is not. Krulwich makes note of that, too, and disqualifies glutamin….for being too “technical.” Sam Kean, the author of The Disappearing Spoon, determined the longest non-technical word was pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, apparently slang for the disease you get when you inhale silicon dioxide. Yes, “slang.”
(More on TIME.com: Twitter and Gourmet Sex: They’re in the Dictionary Now.)
And while NewsFeed struggles to distinguish between technical and non-technical, jargon and mainstream, we do have a few really long names of places up our sleeves. They include:
- Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, a town in Wales whose name means “The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio’s of the red cave.” It’s the longest name place in Europe. Tack on a “.com” and it’s the world’s longest URL without hyphens, too.
himaungahoronukupokaiwhenuaakitanarahu, the 85-letter name of a hill in New Zealand. It translates from Mäori as “the place where Tamatea, the man with big knees, who slid, climbed, and swallowed mountains, known as land-eater, played on the flute to his loved one.” Beautiful.
But surely the 163-character ceremonial name of Bangkok, Thailand takes the cake: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. That translates as “the city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma.” (via NPR)
(More on TIME.com: See the Top 10 Buzzwords of 2010.)