A look at Hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism

Wondering about the large word in the title? Many of you will certainly be, I aver. 

I deem it a most unfortunate fact, though inevitable in these ignoble times, where the trend is for to denigrate learning, to debase and shorten language – often to ludicrous extremes – under the cover of speedier and easier communication as it is touted, that the use of words extending over two syllables might come as a shock for quite a few while for many of them, the idea that such things exist would be a concept highly alien to their nature.

It is for this reason only that I will treat you to a selection of extremely long words from all over the world, with some tips how you might coin one if you are so inclined.

There was a time when there were people who took keen interest in words and sought to ensure they were not misused. I am reminded of that masterly exchange in Time magazine over half a century ago….

In March 13, 1950 issue , the magazine printed the following suggested correction in its letters column:

Shouldn’t Ausserordentlichhochgeschwindigkeitelectronenentwickelndesschwerabeitsbeigollitron  read Ausserordentlichhochgeschwindigkeitelectronenentwickelndesschwerarbeitsbeigollitron?

(Rev.) T.M. Hesburgh
Notre Dame, Ind.

To this …. but let me observe the niceties.

Time’s terse reply:


I will leave you to work out the difference….

To return to the point, the creation of  long words in any particular language depends on its word formation rules. Though agglutinative languages  (where most words are formed by joining morpheme or the smallest component of a word that has semantic meaning) such as Turkish or Hungarian allow for the creation of long words via compounding, even non-agglutinative languages (English is the best example among this category which comprises most languages) may allow word formation of theoretically limitless length in certain contexts… as we shall soon see.

The ace is German, which has a penchant for loving to frame long compound forms where several words are brought together an extremely specific word, often relating to the realm of work.

One of the most-cited is: Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft,

which means “the buttons on the jacket of a captain of the Danube Steam Boat Company”. While English pathetically takes 13 words to explain it, German thoroughly does the work in the 79-letter word. In case you are curious, the company – an Austrian one- did exist and ferried passengers and goods on the river and it was called Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft.

Even overtaking it in length is the: Rinderkennzeichnungs- und Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz – a 2000 law of the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, dealing with the supervision of the labeling of beef.

Strictly speaking, it is made up of two words, because a hyphen at the end of a word is used to show that the word will end in the same way as the following. Consequently, the two words would be Rinderkennzeichnungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz and Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

(or literally, Cattle marking and beef labelling supervision duties delegation laws) .

German laws are unique in this respect. In 2003, a decree was established modified some real estate-related regulations, its name was: Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnun.

At 67 letters, it surpassed the RkReÜAÜG, but was repealed in 2007

More examples can be found in German – Reichseisenbahnhiundherschiebershauschen, which means the “little house of the state railway track shunter”.

The nighbouring Danes are not far behind. Speciallægepraksisplanlægningsstabiliseringsperiode, (51 letters) is the longest word that has been used in an official context. It means “Period of stability planning for specialist doctor practice”…whatever that is.

Konstantinopolitanerinde, meaning “female inhabitant of Constantinople”, is often mentioned as the longest non-compound word.

Dutch too is capable of forming compounds of potentially limitless length.

The 49-letter Kindercarnavalsoptochtvoorbereidingswerkzaamheden, means “preparation activities for a children’s carnival procession”, which shows the Dutch are no less thorough in certain activities.

The longest word in an authoritative dictionary of the language is wapenstilstandsonderhandelingen (31 letters),  meaning “cease-fire negotiations”, while another lists three 40 letter marvels vervoerdersaansprakelijkheidsverzekering  or “carriers’ liability insurance”), bestuurdersaansprakelijkheidsverzekering – “directors’ liability insurance” and overeenstemmingsbeoordelingsprocedures, or “conformity assessment procedures”.

To be continued….


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