The longest word in the English language

It might seem like an easy task to name the longest English word – just look it up in the dictionary. But in practice, experts disagree.

Staff

What is the longest word in the English language? This might seem like an easy question to answer: Look it up in the dictionary, or search online, and there you go. But in practice, experts disagree. What counts as a word? How frequently must a term be used? 

If you’re looking for length, scientific nomenclature is a good place to begin. The chemical name of the protein titin, found in muscle tissue, begins methionylthreonylthreonyl... and goes on for another 189,794 letters, approximately as many characters as 70 pages of single-spaced text. This is the longest string of English letters that names a thing, but it’s not a word per se. It’s a formula that represents this protein’s chemical composition linguistically, rather than numerically or in a diagram.

Many writers have enjoyed coining long words, but these rarely gain traction in wider use. Aristophanes, the comic poet of ancient Greece, came up with a name for a stew made of fish, pigeons, and honey that has 182 letters when transliterated into English. 

James Joyce made up ten 100- and 101-letter words to represent various sounds, including bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonn
erronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk, for the thunder that rang out when Adam fell from God’s grace. Although this is a very cool onomatopoeia – made up of words imitating the sounds “thunder” in different languages – it is not really a contender for the record either. No one uses it, except perhaps literary critics or students struggling through “Finnegans Wake.”  

On the other hand, English speakers around the world are familiar with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (34 letters). When it was first popularized in the 1964 film “Mary Poppins,” it was fun but meaningless and so it is still often left off lists of longest words. Merriam-Webster explains that it is in the running now, though: “the mouthful of nonsensical syllables certainly has brought cheer to audiences for decades. That cheer has inspired people to use it ... for things that are extraordinarily good or wonderful,” a supercalifragilistic (for short) development!

Coming in at 29 letters, floccinaucinihilipilification – “the act of estimating something to be worthless” – is the longest word that invites no arguments. It’s in dictionaries, is occasionally used in public, and has a pedigree. It was coined in the 18th century by students at Eton, a boarding school in Britain, by linking four Latin words for “nothing.”  

Except for methionyl... the words we’re talking about were all intentionally created to be long. What’s the longest in common use? How about smiles? As the joke goes, there’s a mile between the beginning and end of the word!

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.