Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two Big Words

In regards to the study of words, surely any meager attempt must always be worthwhile. To know one’s language better is, in a sense, to know one’s self better, to better understand communication and writing and speech, and most importantly, thinking. Thus the reader is hereby cautioned not to suppose that the words I have here explored have been chosen out of an attempt for humor, brevity, or inattention. Even if that could be thought, then
It's a big Twinkie.
nonetheless, as stated, such a study would have been worthwhile. But this series, filled with worthy reflection and self-reflection on the language which I call my own, is made up of words by which I have used to encourage my understanding of English, its functions, and its beauties. The words chosen are the cream of the crop from a larger list, tested in the incomparable Oxford English Dictionary in the 75th anniversary of that sacred sepulcher of haut anglais. I feel thus honored to hope that, in the shadow of the great Dictionary, the essay which follows might be looked upon as having been impossible without that magnificent text.

Upon reflecting on the wonderful gems of the English language, I naturally had to start somewhere. The first word is one that, in many regards, might be considered the mother of them all. By this, I do not mean that it is the maternal source of all words, but rather that, so it is said, it is the biggest word that English has to offer: “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Many a school child has spent time (surely time well spent) trying to pick apart the mysterious meaning of this long word, using the tools of prefix and suffix knowledge to work further inwards towards the key idea behind the word. Clearly, with a bit of thinking, the word means to be against… something, though what an antidisestablishmentarian is against has, to my knowledge, eluded elementary students across America. This can be expected, for the word is best applied to lovers of the Church of England, or more specifically, those in “opposition
It's a C and and E and a cross!
to the disestablishment of the Church of England” (this all all quotes hereafter are from the Oxford English Dictionary). (I find it anticlimactic that, as things turn out, with a bit of context, the word basically means what it would suggest.) What is perhaps not surprising is that this word in its original form is an older variety (the OED first cites its use in 1900); to my mind, with the grander and more verbose nature of what I think of nineteenth-century writing (albeit with the understanding, of course, that 1900 is not in the nineteenth-century), and with our era where world leaders refer to enemy combatants succinctly as “folks,” that a word as grand as antidisestablishmentarianism clearly was doomed to fall into the stuff of children. (I will, however, add that I did not know that such opposition to the Church of England existed at the turn of the twentieth-century; perhaps bright elementary school educators should file away this word and spring it at the proper time.) Indeed, if one supposes words to have individual emotions, this word probably has been depressed for some time: having started as such a lofty description for a difference in ideas about a religious institution, it is now notedin the OED, probably with giggles, as “the longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism... and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

But not all long words have lived such sad lives as the former. Indeed, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” ironically is, in one way, as an authentic a word as Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins: complete and utter “nonsense." Why then is this nonsense word noteworthy, aside from another long word that most people know? The word has an amazingly interesting history. The moral of it is that two persons named Parker and Young would have been wise to publish their hard work. In 1949 they wrote a song called “Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus” (underline mine to show differences), and following the success of 1964s Mary Poppins (which, “Whatever the ancestry of
Mary preferred Bert with his legs open, actually....
supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was the venue by which the word “entered the general public consciousness”), legal action was taken against the Disney song authored by R. M. and R. B. Sherman. I will again ask the reader to look at the differences between the Disney song word and the word of Parker and Young; to my eyes, five differences exist between the Parker and Young word and that of Sherman and Sherman, the latter of which met success with a word that was 32 letters long. Parker and Young lost due to the “dissimilarity between the songs," according to the judge. Aside from being a nonsense word, and a very long word, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” stands in mute testimony of the need for accurate authorship. Mary Poppins’ bastard word-child, so unclear of its origins, can at least take solace in its firm place in the English language.

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