Antidisestablishmentarianism

So, we all know the word “antidisestablishmentarianism”, but how many know what it means?

The automatic response, of course, is to reach for the nearest dictionary, and online dictionaries are facilitating much ease of reaching, and much less spilling of coffee. Yet, this particular word – colloquially known as the longest word in the English language that most people can remember, but not the actual longest – is not in all dictionaries.

This was a revelation for me too, when I was recently linked to a video from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

It is a part of a series of videos on their website, in which the editors of this American dictionary answer questions about the language, the dictionary and grammar. They have some excellent stuff – there is even a wonderful video about the figurative use of the word “literally” in there!

However, the video about antidisestablishmentarianism bothered me.

For the Merriam-Webster collegiate dictionary, the longest word is electroencephalographically (by using electroencephalography to examine a patient), which at 27 letters long is quite a long word. Antidisestablishmentarianism would only best it by one letter. Yet antidisestablishmentarianism is not the longest word for the M-W, and that is because it is not a word entered into their dictionaries at all. They give a decent justification for this – all words that they enter must meet certain criteria.

Widespread usage.
Sustained usage.
Meaningful usage.

Antidisestablishmentarianism is rejected on the grounds of meaningful usage, because there is little evidence that the word is used to refer to something (other than being an example of a long word). M-W argue that although a meaning could be constructed for the word – opposition to depriving a legally established state church of its status – there are few examples of it ever being used this way. In fact, the M-W files only contain three examples of the word being used like this, which for them is not enough evidence of sustained or widespread usage.
The video concludes that if this word develops more widespread, sustained and meaningful use, then it will be entered into their dictionaries. But not before then.
The same applies for “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – another word found nowhere in the M-W.
You can watch the video here.

The video left me dissatisfied. Thus, as I am wont to do, I checked the Oxford English Dictionary.

antidisestablishmentarianism, n.
Properly, opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England (rare): but popularly cited as an example of a long word.
1923   in Brewer’s Dict. Phr. & Fable (new ed.) at Long words,
1960   Amrita Bazar Patrika 17 June 6/4   But then ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism’ contains three more letters, as pointed out by two readers.
1984   T. Augarde Oxf. Guide Word Games xxvi. 216   The longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism..and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

There it was, in all its glory. The OED had included the word antidisestablishmentarianism.

Yet, something was wrong. All these examples were of the word being used as an example of a long word – precisely the criticism that the Merriam-Webster had levelled at it. This was not true of the derivative, antidisestablishmentarian (note the lack of “ism”).

1900   N. & Q. 25 Aug. 147/1   In the recent biography of Dr. Benson is an entry from the Archbishop’s diary to the effect that ‘the Free Kirk of the North of Scotland are strong antidisestablishmentarians’.

But I wanted the 28 letter word. The Oxford Dictionaries site (which is freely available outside of subscriptions by institutions, unlike the full online version of the OED) noted that “Antidisestablishmentarianism is very occasionally found in genuine use, but it is most often cited as an example of a very long word.”

This was as frustrating as the original video: if there were examples, why had the OED not cited them at all? I explored the web myself, discovering that the word antidisestablishmentarianism was almost always only used as an example of a long word. It occurred occasionally in scholarly articles, but more often in a title rather than the text itself. When it did occur in the text, it was usually talking about the word itself, and only rarely using the word in a sentence to which it added useful information.

Some other relevant considerations are nicely captured by John Madeley in his characterisation of an important strand in contemporary antidisestablishmentarianism.

This is a typical, dry example of the way in which the word can be used once in an article.

The rest of the net was full of discussion around the word (about 258,000 results), with lots of people defining it when asked to, but not usually using it as a word outside of the discussion of the word.

So, where does that leave me?

Well, it depends how you interpret the role of a dictionary. Merriam-Webster is the descendent of Noah Webster’s original 1828 “An American Dictionary of the English Language”, which attempted to standardise† American speech. This philosophy has carried over into their present publishing: they offer guidance for people using the English language, and as has been noted, have certain criteria that must be met by words for them to be entered into their dictionary.

Interestingly, this prescriptive rather than solely descriptive approach is usually brought up as a criticism of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a very powerful authority of the English language. The criticism is not necessarily negative: Merriam-Webster has criteria about the entry of words because they only want to record words that meet them.

I am not going to defend the OED against the charge that is it an institution of the English language, because that would be making it one. The OED is not, and should not be above criticism. They took a long time to include any of those infamous four-letter-words, and much like the M-W and other dictionaries, they offer guidance as to the common and even “correct” usage of words. They have their own set of rules about proof of words, which have been criticised (they require a printed example, for instance, though their submission guidelines seem to say that even song lyrics are acceptable). Moreover, their full dictionary is not freely available outside of institutions (though this is also true of Merriam-Webster, amongst others). I am not affiliated with the OED, and though I will refer to it religiously and love it dearly, I am aware of its faults, and even consciously choose to ignore it at times (such as using the wonderful word “summited” in my last post, which the M-W includes in their dictionary but the OED does not. Further to this, I have now submitted relevant quotations of this usage to the OED, in the hope that they will update it.)

Nevertheless, I argue that the Oxford English Dictionary, as the self-proclaimed “Definitive record of the English language”, should record the usage of that language, and I love that it meets that challenge (at least for this word! And supercalifragilisticexpialidocious‡. But please don’t attack me with a million examples of where this is not so!). The word antidisestablishmentarianism is used very often and in a consistent way, even if that usage is circular (referencing itself as a long word), and that it only rarely gains a real meaning (which the OED, I freely concede, should really quote examples of if it wants to include that usage in the definition).

To acknowledge that the word exists in the language and then to refuse to record it is to impose prescriptions, and restrictions, upon the language. If a person heard the word antidisestablishmentarianism used in conversation (as, say, in the unlikely scenario of an example of a long word), and wanted to find out the etymology or usage or pronunciation of that word, they would be able to answer these questions in the OED, even if they might be unable to find out a satisfactory meaning.

This is not to say that such authorities of a language should not give advice about the usage of words. Conversely, one needs guidance about certain standardising (and evolving) rules and usages, if only so that they can informatively break them.

Books, University of Western Australia, Perth

The image above was taken last year at the University of Western Australia, Perth.

And for the Aussies, here is the Macquarie Dictionary excerpt:

antidisestablishmentarian
/ˌæntidɪsəsˌtæblɪʃmənˈtɛəriən/ (say .anteedisuhs.tablishmuhn’tairreeuhn) Rare
–adjective 1. opposed to the disestablishment of a church by the withdrawal of state patronage.

–noun 2. someone who is thus opposed.

–antidisestablishmentarianism, noun

Usage: This is a term that relates to the position of the Church of England in 19th-century Britain, but it retains some currency because the derived form antidisestablishmentarianism has popularly been thought to be the longest word in the English language.

Also of interest, Germany has recently deleted its longest word.

*I use the OED online, because I find it very easy to use, and mostly because I never have a hard copy on hand. Or one at all, actually, though I do intend to acquire a hard copy of the second (most recent) edition, as I feel that it would be wrong not to celebrate the edition of the year of my own birth.

†I am actually rather fond of the OED spelling of words with an “-ize”. (Yes, that is correct: this is the Oxford spelling, not just the American standard.) Not only is “standardize” so much more exciting and exotic than “standardise”, but it is much closer to the English pronunciation, has been in spelling since the 15th century (-ise turned up in the 18th century), and for most words, is closer to the original etymology: the -ize ending corresponds to the Greek verb endings -izo and -izein. The Oxford English Dictionary uses the -ize spelling for these etymological reason, but also because that is what they have used since their first unofficial publications from 1884 (and complete dictionary in 1928). They state that both spellings are correct; importantly, neither -ise or -ize is more “correct”!
However, I use the -ise spelling, because that is the standard Australian (and British) spelling. Simple as that! Some words in British English require the -ise spelling (like exercise, or advertise) due to their different etymological roots, which has been suggested as the reason for why the British standard of always using -ise may have been adopted.
For a more articulate version of this explanation, see the OED’s blog post about the subject.

‡The OED has an entry for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! It is an adjective, defined as “A nonsense word, originally used esp. by children, and typically expressing excited approbation: fantastic, fabulous.”

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2 thoughts on “Antidisestablishmentarianism

  1. I have to say, unfortunately, I spent some time trying to come up with a witty comment to leave for you, but the best I could do was to think “hmmm, well there you go.” It’s fascinating to learn about the history of the OED and dictionary words!

    I also want to acquire a copy of the OED. I know it’s a bit like having a paper copy of an Encyclopaedia (my grandmother has one!) but it just seems… cool.

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