Dear Dr. Boli: A boy in my class was saying that “antidisestablishmentarianism” was the longest word in the English language, but I thought he was wrong so I punched him. Actually, I didn’t know any longer words, but he looked so smug he just needed a good punching. But anyway, was he right? Is that the longest word in the English language? —Sincerely, Olivia, Mrs. Fanshawe’s Fifth-Grade English Class, Blandville Elementary.

Dear Miss: The wonderful thing about the English language is that it gives us all the tools we need to prolong words indefinitely. Thus there is no longest word, because we can always make a longer one from the parts available.

Let us take your classmate’s example of antidisestablishmentarianism. It is indeed a long word. But what would we call the very early stages of antidisestablishmentarianism? We open up our caddy of word parts and immediately come up with protoantidisestablishmentarianism. We have lengthened our word by two syllables, but why stop there? What would we call a movement that looks like protoantidisestablishmentarianism, but does not meet the strict definition? Reaching in and rummaging around among the prefixes, we come up with pseudoprotoantidisestablishmentarianism. We have now added four syllables to our already long word, and we have not even reached into the suffixes compartment yet. Something that reminds us of pseudoprotoantidisestablishmentarianism would be pseudoprotoantidisestablishmentarianismesque, would it not?

You see, then, that there is no upper limit to the length of words in English, so your classmate was wrong, although it is generally not good practice to go around punching people who are wrong: there are too many of them, and some of them are bigger than you. If you are looking for long words, however, the field of chemistry is fertile soil in which they grow abundantly. Wikipedia mentions the chemical composition of titin as the “longest known word overall by magnitudes,” adding that “Attempts to say the entire word have taken two to three and a half hours.” In keeping with our usual strict limits on the kind of language allowed in this Magazine, we will not repeat the word here. But what would you call the early stage of that chemical composition? What would you call something that resembled that early stage, but did not meet the strict definition? What would you call something that reminded you of something that resembled the early stage of the chemical composition of titin but did not meet the strict definition? You see how this works.


  1. tom says:

    I think one’s talents would be better employed in finding the wrongest word in the English language

  2. Daniel says:

    Happy to see “pseudo” in your example of word extension. It’s one of my favorite tools in the multisyllabic synthesis caddy. With enough Greek and Latin roots at one’s disposal, words are like Legos that can be built with all day.

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