In his book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” Stephen King offers this good advice: “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

You guessed it, this week we’re going to take a look at some of the longer words in the English language, what they mean and whether they’re words we can actually use or just coined words or ones used in medical or technical fields.

In the way of housekeeping, I’m not going to be examining the longest words in the world — if you want those, there’s one on the internet that contains something like 180,000 letters and takes about three hours to pronounce.

At 45 letters, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a medical condition that results from the inhalation of very fine silicate or quartz dust, is the longest word that can be found in some standard dictionaries. It’s also known as silicosis.

Coming in a somewhat distant second at 36 letters is hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, a coined word for the fear of long words.

Also making the podium is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (34), which is referred to as a proper noun in some dictionaries. It is a coined nonsense word from the 1964 movie “Mary Poppins” that is used to express approval for something. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious does not appear in P.L. Travers’ 1934 book on which the movie was based. It also happens to be the first really big word in this column that the spellchecker in my computer recognizes as being real.

Antidisestablishmentarianism (28), opposition to withdrawing government support of a particular church or religion, and floccinaucinihilipilification (29), the estimation of something as worthless, are a pair of worthy also-rans. (Floccinaucinihilipilification’s worth might be in question though, since it’s almost never used except as an example of a long word.)

The longest word in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is electroencephelographically (27), which is something done using an  electroencephalogram (EEG).

Also containing 27 letters is honorificabilitudinitatibus, a word uttered by Costard in William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Referring to the state of being able to achieve honors, honorificabilitudinitatibus is something that’s known as a “hapax legomenon,” meaning that the Bard used it only once in his entire body of work. It also happens to be the longest English word that’s made up of alternating consonants and vowels.

According to wags on the internet, five big words that we’re actually likely to encounter are: counterrevolutionaries (22), deinstitutionalization (22), incomprehensibilities (21), uncharacteristically (20), and unimaginatively (18). At last, with some normalcy.

Coming in at 20 letters, but not a word we’re likely to encounter outside of this column, is Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, a town in northwest Wales. At some point, the townspeople decided to add another 38 letters to the name (making it Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrolwllllantysiliogogogoch), so it could have the longest name of any place in Great Britain.

The runt of the litter, weighing in at a mere 16 letters, is sesquipedalianism, which is the tendency to use long words.

That’s a short look at long words; hopefully I didn’t embarrass myself.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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