1 The longest word?
“Everyone knows” that with its gargantuan 28 letters antidisestablishmentarianism is “the longest word in English”. Actually, it isn’t. The “longest word in any dictionary” depends on the dictionary you happen to be consulting: in the Oxford Dictionary Online it is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which weighs in at 45 letters and was invented as a sort of parody of long medical terms. It is not in Merriam-Webster Online (though it is in their Unabridged), and nor is antidisestablishmentarianism.
Curiously, electroencephalographically, with its mere 27 characters, is in M-W, but floccinaucinihilipilification with its 29 characters isn’t – though it is in the Oxford Online along with our hero word.
Actually, “the longest word” is not really a “word” in any meaningful sense of the word “word”; rather it is a string of 189,819 letters for the chemical formula of the protein Titin. If you have 90 minutes or so to spare, you can watch someone reading it out here.
2 Who cares?
Quite a few people, it seems. After all, many of us are perennially fascinated by the quirkier facets of our language (e.g. is there a word in which all the vowel letters appear once and only once, but in alphabetical order?). Our curiosity is piqued by the cryptophallic (as some would suggest) biggest/richest/longest/smallest pretty much anything –est, as the appeal of the Guinness Book of Records shows (what is the greatest number of gerbils eaten by one person in one sitting?) Those two factors combine, it seems to me, to produce what I can only describe as sesquipedalianophilous indagaciousness (37 letters, but, sadly, two words), “the inquisitiveness associated with the love of long words”.
3 Has it always been “the longest word”?
I can’t say for sure when antidisestablishmentarianism acquired its mythical status (but see 4 below for some clues).
However, a search of Google Ngrams shows that in 1901, in an issue of the Writer, A Monthly Magazine for Literary Workers, founded by two Boston Globe journalists, it was the four-letters-shorter disestablishmentarianism that was cited as the longest word in English. (The magazine is still going strong). And in Current Advertising of the same year, there is the following quote: “If anybody really wants to know, it may be authoritatively stated that the longest legitimate word is disestablishmentarianism. Don’t let the fact that it isn’t in the dictionary worry you. The word was coined and used by the late Mr. Gladstone…” (that attribution is probably apocryphal).
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4 Is it a “real” word?
4.1 If by that we mean “Is it a word that is used in real discourse, rather than a word that is exclusively cited as an example of a long word?”, then the answer is “yes”, as I think this blog will demonstrate. However, a bit like that running machine that sits, rarely or never switched on, in some people’s homes, it is more exciting as an idea than in reality: it is rather more talked about and discussed qua longest word than ever actively used. Merriam-Webster goes so far as to say that “Merriam-Webster doesn’t enter antidisestablishmentarianism in any of its dictionaries because the evidence indicates that the word is almost never used anymore.”
(And for discussion of anymore vs. any more, you’ve come to the right place.)
What Merriam-Webster says is true, but only up to a point. In some ways, the word is a treasured fossil, a linguistic curiosity, possibly even deserving the title “English language national treasure.” Discussion about the disestablishment of the Church, which gave rise to it, is not as topical as it was at times in the 19th century. However, such discussion can occur. The Church of England is “established”, making it the “state” religion or church: in other words, among other things, it is used on state occasions and the monarch is its supreme governor. There are those who feel that this link between Church and State should be sundered, and the Church disestablished: such people can be said to be of a disestablishmentarianist disposition
4.2 The earliest OED citation and earlier still citations
Interestingly, the first OED entry for antidisestablishmentarianism is from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable of 1923, at the entry for long words. However, the Bulletin of the Grosvenor Library, Buffalo (Volumes 1-4, p. 168), has this from 1918: “I can go this one better, with a word which I have been told, ever since childhood, was the longest in the English language, it is antidisestablishmentarianism, containing 28 letters, and meaning, of course, the doctrine of those who did not wish…” The “this” apparently refers to an earlier claim in the same publication that anthropomorphologically (23 letters) was the longest.
4.3 And a 1919 edition of Everyland: A Magazine of World Friendship for Girls and Boys has this: “Dorothy Knudson says it is “antitransubstantiationalistically” : Alison Bryant, Rose Gibson, Lucretia Ilsley, and Isabel Weedon say it is antidisestablishmentarianism.” (Vol 10, Issues 7-12, p. 336.)
From which it is clear that by that date several readers of the magazine took anti…ism to be the longest. As regards the even longer, 33-letter contender, antitransubstantiationalistically, that it was ever actually used looks extremely dubious.
(Although a correspondent adds a letter s and professes to be “antitranssubstantiationalistically inclined.” Transubstantiation is the doctrine that at the moment of consecration the wine and the host become the blood and body of Christ.)
5 Why is it known (by many) as the longest word?
Partly, I suggest, because it consists of familiar individual parts that make it possible to remember, unlike, say, the monster mentioned at 4.3 above. Then, it has longevity: as mentioned earlier, it was first mentioned as the champ a century and a year ago.
It also has, to my mind at least, a distinct and winning personality.
I must have found out about it as a child. Its eleven (or twelve, depending) syllables with their repeated i and s sounds seemed to have an amazing dynamism, like a choo-choo building up steam towards the main stress on the eighth. And its two negative prefixes, anti- and dis-, seemed bafflingly at loggerheads with one another, creating a strange double negative. It had all the magical, talismanic power that words can have for young children. Once encountered, it can never be unremembered.
6 What do all the different bits mean?
It is also a remarkable example of how prefixes and suffixes can be coupled together, a bit like railway carriages. If you uncouple them, what do you get? anti-dis-establish-ment-arian-ism. In other words, the locomotive of this word is the verb establish. Why is that?
7 It’s all to do with politics and religion
In England (and here England means England, not Scotland or Wales) the Church of England is “established”. This means it is the official Church, and has several links with the State. For instance, the monarch is its head, and any measures passed by the Church’s governing body have to be approved by Parliament. (In the US, in contrast, no Church has this constitutionally privileged role).
Historically, this dominance of the Church of England has been disputed—and in some circles still is. Those in favour of maintaining it as the established Church were called establishmentarians…
The OED records this word as a noun from 1846, and as an adjective from 1847: “Those who, like myself, are called High Churchmen, have little or no sympathy with mere Establishmentarians.”—Hook, 1846.
It seems that Gladstone did not much care for the word: in the Contemporary Review of June 1875 he wrote “The prosecutors…are strongly (to use a barbarous word) establishmentarian.”
(It is worth remembering that Gladstone was a considerable classical scholar, and will no doubt have had firm views on what were barbarous—that is questionably formed from an etymological point of view—words).
And the philosophy upheld by establishmentarians is of course…establishmentarianism. In 1873 the noted philologist Fitzedward Hall wrote of Richard Chenevix Trench (the admirer of female rowing crews and original inspiration for the creation of the OED) that “Establishmentarianism was wont to roll over the prelatial [Abp. Trench’s] tongue“. Chenevix Trench was in fact Archbishop of Dublin when the C of E was disestablished in Ireland, in 1871.
7.3 A secondary, more modern meaning
The adjective cum noun establishmentarian also has a more modern meaning, as the OED defines it: “Pertaining to or characteristic of the establishment; supportive of or favouring the establishment and its values; establishment-minded, conservative”. First recorded, it seems, in the economist J.K. Galbraith’s journal in early 1962. A more recent example is: In 1976, he left the abortion rights league, in part because he believed it was becoming too establishmentarian” (NYT, 2006).
Those in favour of disestablishing the Church were, naturally, disestablishmentarians, first recorded from 1885 in the unrevised OED entry, but traceable in Google Ngrams at least as far back as The Church Herald of 1874: “…no public event has done more mischief as regards turning men’s minds into a Disestablishmentarian channel than the recent policy of the Bishops’ Bench as expounded by the two Primates.”
And their philosophy is disestablishmentarianism (OED, 1897).
Those opposed to disestablishment are, inevitably, antidisestablishmentarians. If you knocked off the first two prefixes, you would get back to establishmentarian, which would not, however, mean exactly the same thing. The first OED entry for antidisestablishmentarian is from the journal Notes and Queries of 1900. And for antidisestablishmentarianism from 1923, as previously mentioned, which takes us full circle.
NB: This is an updated version of a post first published four years ago, re-posted because I’m short of time.