What is the largest word? and old jokes

I always thought that antidisestablishmentarianism was the longest English word (28 letters). This is what I learned in school and must admit I had not thought about it much since.  As it happens I am wrong. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters) is longer and appears in many dictionaries, where it is cited as the longest English word. But, of course it depends what you accept as a “word”. If you Google “longest word english” you will soon find the intriguing Wikipedia site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longest_word_in_English which emphasises the issue of what do you mean. If technical terms and names are allowed then the longest name has to be the formal chemical name for the high molecular weight protein with the trivial name ‘titin’ the formal name has about 189,819 letters.

The website also states that there are many made-up words used in written works. For example, James Joyce included five 101 letter words in Finnegan’s Wake, one example being bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk, which Joyce said represents “the symbolic thunder-clap associated with the fall of Adam and Eve”.

The well-established practice of adding prefixes to words such as anti onto histamine (antihistamine), for a substance that would inhibit histamine reactions, and antiantihistamine for a substance that inhibits antihistamines, means it is possible to fabricate longer and longer words. So I conclude that there is no definitive answer to the question, “What is the longest word?” just as there is to the question, “What is the longest piece of string?”

According to A C Grayling, “Questions of Language” in The Form of Things 2006 there are about 500,000 words in the English language, not counting obsolete ones, and an average educated person would have a vocabulary of about 30,000. Whereas, to read the Sun  newspaper only requires a vocab of about 800 words, which is what he says is needed to get by in most languages.

My daughter visited us recently all the way from Australia. It was lovely to see her and she told us, amongst a lot of more important things, that a new mummy had been discovered in Egypt, a new Pharaoh. The discoverers were puzzled because the mummy was covered in chocolate and hazelnut pieces then they realised her name had to be Rocher. Boom Boom. I have to admit that I laughed and not just out of politeness.

I did a quick search on the web for the oldest joke and found one reputedly dating back to the 1st Century BC. It involves Emperor Augustus who is touring the empire and discovers a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to himself. He is very intrigued and asks the man: “Was your mother at one time in service at the palace in Rome?”. The man replies “No your highness, but my father was.”

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One Response to What is the largest word? and old jokes

  1. Pingback: The longest English word « welearnhere

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