mary poppins and long words

A few months ago, NPR published a brief obituary for the longest word in the German language, which was laid to rest recently by German lawmakers. The word, a 63-letter tongue twister that looks more like a typo, is rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. The meaning is “the law for the delegation of monitoring beef labeling.” Now that the law for monitoring beef labeling has been repealed, there’s not much use for the longest “authentic” word in the German language.

The German legislative powers-that-be might have killed off this word, but it seems as though culture would have put the last nail in the coffin sooner or later. In the age of 140-character madness and two-line Facebook status updates, the multiple syllable words in our lives are being thrown to the sharks — either that, or abbreviated or truncated to fit our diminishing needs.

In Mary Poppins, the loveable nanny says supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is her go-to word when she has nothing else to say, even though the “sound of it is something quite atrocious.” And there are plenty of other atrociously long words in the English language, whether they’re coined, technical, or constructed ones that get their length from tacking prefixes and suffixes onto both ends of a root word. A few of the super stretched English language words: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (a lung disease), antidisestablishmentarianism (a political position opposed to the dissolution of the Church of England, and a prime example of a constructed word) or Shakespeare’s favorite multisyllable wonder, honorificabilitudinitatibus. These words may exist, but it’s safe to say we’re not finding them very often in our tweets or status updates.

All these syllables have got me wondering just what dictates which words we use and which we don’t. What’s the main factor in a word’s survival of the fittest? Is it length? How easy it is to pronounce or spell it? Or, is it a useful definition that keeps a word alive in our lexicon?

It’s a thought that deserves a bit more digging — or so thought a group of physicists who recently calculated the number of words that have “died off” from regular use in the last few years. The result of their study: more English words have dearly departed us during the last few decades than during any other period between 1800 and 2013. They say it’s because of spell check and synonym deaths that some words beat out others in the survival of the fittest. In the days of Microsoft Word, few alternate spellings have a fighting chance. And then there’s the redundancy factor: words such as roentgenogram have all but disappeared from the English language thanks to their shorter, snappier synonym counterparts. In this case, X-ray.

The death of rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz may be a mere matter of policy over in Germany, and we might just not use supercalifragilisticexpialidocious very often because, well, we have something else to say. But all our tweeting and texting does really make me wonder how long our 140-character lives will have space for oversized words.

And now, a moment of silence for a few English language words recently deemed so obsolete that they’ve been exiled from dictionaries: supererogate, charabanc and frigorific. May you rest in peace.

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