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Pronounced /ˌɒnərəɪfɪkəˈbɪlɪtjuːɪnætɪbəs/Help with pronunciation

We are in the arena of sesquipedalian words — those a foot and a half long, whose prime characteristic is their length rather than their sense or value.

Honorificabilitudinitatibus may be rendered more succinctly as “of honour”. Any word used by James Joyce (in Ulysses) and William Shakespeare (in Love’s Labour Lost) can’t be entirely dismissed from the canon of English, even though the former borrowed it from the latter, who in turn borrowed it from Latin.

I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.

Love’s Labour Lost, by William Shakespeare, 1598. (Somebody’s now sure to ask me about flap-dragon. It was the name given to a game in which the players snatched raisins out of a dish of burning brandy and extinguished them in their mouths before eating them. By extension, it was the burning raisins used in the game.)

It’s Latin, from honōrificābilis, honourable. Shakespeare didn’t invent this grandiose word: it first appears — in the form honōrificābilitūdo — in a charter of 1187 and as honōrificābilitūdinitās in a work by the Italian Albertinus Mussatus about 1300. It was used also by Dante and Rabelais and turns up in an anonymous Scots work of 1548, The Complaynt of Scotland.

An anagram of honorificabilitudinitatibus is Hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi. In English, that’s “These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world”. This gem of misapplied cryptanalysis was presented by Sir Edwin Lawrence-Durning in 1910 in his book Bacon is Shakespeare as a message inserted in the text by Francis Bacon, who (as some are convinced) actually wrote the plays usually said to be by William Shakespeare. This is all nonsense, of course — as every schoolboy knows, they were really written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

But the same set of letters, tested in the common tongue, can be read as Inhibit in fabulous, idiotic art; Inhabit furious libido in attic; Habitual if ionic distribution; and Hi! fabulous tit in idiotic brain. What would Sir Edwin have made of all these?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 Jun. 2002
Last updated: 16 Apr. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-hon1.htm
Last modified: 16 April 2011.