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The longest word

I came across pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis the other day in a popular science book. It seemed as good a time as any to recognise this notorious word, the longest to appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, beating out such horrors as honorificabilitudinitatibus. It’s supposed to be a lung disease that’s caused by the inhalation of the very fine sand and ash dust found around volcanoes.

This 45-letter monstrosity (word lovers prefer, with good reason, to refer to it as p45) primarily exists as an example of a very long word, a trophy to be exhibited as evidence of the superior knowledge and intellect of the person presenting it. Hardly anyone who does so realises that they’re perpetuating a joke.

The story starts in New York in 1935. The famous National Puzzlers’ League of the US, the longest-surviving puzzle organisation in the world, was holding its 103rd semi-annual meeting at the Hotel New Yorker. The then president of the NPL was Everett M Smith, whose day job was news editor of the Christian Science Monitor but who in these circles was known as Puzzlesmith. Mr Smith introduced p45 to the meeting to illustrate the ever-increasing length of medical terms. But doctors knew nothing of it, because it was the creation of Mr Smith’s nimble mind.

The word was reported in the issue of The New York Herald-Tribune of 23 February 1935, spelled -koniosis. Frank Scully included it in Bedside Manna, the Third Fun in Bed Book the next year, though he spelled it wrongly. It gained a semi-official stamp of approval when in 1939 Merriam-Webster added it to the supplement of its New International Dictionary (it has been claimed that this was the result of a campaign by members of the NPL). Subsequently, p45 has so often been recorded that many publishers have felt obliged to include it in their larger dictionaries, though usually with disclaimers.

If you need to refer to the disease, pneumoconiosis is shorter and means much the same. Or you could use the popular terms silicosis or black lung.

Page created 23 Apr. 2011

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Last modified: 23 April 2011.