If you grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s there are two words that you and everyone else recalls. Both are long and complicated. We took pride in being able to say them, but few if any could spell them correctly. And worst of all I am betting that none of us could define them.
Naively we tended to believe both were real words. After all, SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS was given to us by none other than the wholesome pair Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in the movie Mary Poppins. Paragons of truth and virtue like Van Dyke and Andrews would never lead us astray. Van Dyke had additional stature because he had a brief television marriage to Mary Tyler Moore, another wholesome star and heart throb of the era. Julie Andrews had additional credibility as the governess in The Sound of Music.
This important word even makes the Webster’s Dictionary as an adjective, so it must be real. But it is not a real word with exact meaning as explained in Webster’s. It is a made-up word that has its origins in a column written by Helen Herman for The Syracuse Daily Orange (University) in March 1931. She spelled it supercaliflawjalisticexpialidoshus, a slightly different variant but no easier to spell and no harder to say.
When you say the two words back-to-back phonetically, they sound essentially the same. Herman described it as cramming all the words one might ordinarily say into one, thus saving four paragraphs. Van Dyke and Andrews merely used the word to mean something wonderful or amazing.
According to Websters, the word is an adjective and has been used down through the years since Mary Poppins to describe wonderful things, and even political nonsensical things. Sometimes it is shortened to just SUPERCALIFRAGILISTIC and there is even an adverb version SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICLLY. But we all know what the shortened version refers to when we hear it. So, a word that means absolutely nothing has made its way into our English lexicon because it is fun to say and reminds us of a popular movie and a simpler time. In my mind it is certainly preferable to serendipitous and serendipitously as fun words to say and use.
Our other childhood word to remember came to me early on in life is ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM. We remember adults saying it contained every letter in the alphabet, and since we could not spell it, we believed them. But the word is not that inclusive of letters. It is obviously missing XYZ, but also CFGJKOPQUV and W. So, this complex word contains less than half the letters of the alphabet. Adults then and now cannot spell it, and probably fewer than one in a hundred know its meaning.
ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM comes to us from England and obviously included in the English language. It is a noun and if we had been around in the 1800’s we would have known and participated in the discussion of the issue surrounding the word.
From its component parts the word can be interpreted to mean “Those who oppose those who oppose depriving a legally established State church of its status.” Subsequently in politics it came to be used to define events that dissolved the connection between the State and any secular enterprise. We like to think of it as “The people who are against the people who want to separate church and State.” This double negative could have been simplified to “The people who want to keep the Anglican Church as the official church of England.” We guess double negatives and long words were a fad of the day.
To understand this statement, we must go back to good old Henry the VIII and his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Having been denied this separation by the Pope, he established his own church. In the 1600’s this gave rise to the Anglican Church as the State sponsored church within England, with Henry VIII as its leader. By the 1800’s there was a movement to have a separation between the two and to have more freedom of religion as we have here in America.
We also believed in the 1950’s that this was the longest word in the dictionary, but it is not even close with only twenty-eight letters. For sure the word Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch beats it out at fifty-eight letters, and there are some place names and medical terms even longer. And what is this word? It is a village in Anglesey, Wales, and a place where antidisestablishmentarianism would have been openly debated. It was a hot topic of the day, but not one worth losing your head over.