What's the longest word ever to appear in literature? And what qualifies as a 'word'? The longest word in the English language (leaving literature to one side for a moment) is a staggering 189,819 letters long. Or rather, it is and it isn't.
The chemical formula for the protein otherwise known as titin runs to 189,819 letters, but whether this constitutes a 'word' is a moot point. Science abounds in long formulae like this, but are such formations really 'words'? We have to turn to literature to find the bona fide, non-specialist tonguebusters.
There is a word for those who are scared of long words. It is the suitably long 'hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia.' There is also a word for somebody who is fond of using long words: sesquipedalian. It stems from the Latin for 'a foot and a half,' and was first used to denote someone who is given to longwordiness in Elizabeth Gaskell's 1853 work Cranford (or at least this is the earliest instance the Oxford English Dictionary has yet managed to unearth). But then literature itself can be a place where long words can be formed, disseminated, and popularized. Take the work of James Joyce, for instance, whose Finnegans Wake (1939) contains several 100-letter words, and even one of 101 letters. On the very first page of the novel, Joyce uses the 100-letter word:
The word is meant to denote the symbolic thunderclap which accompanied the Fall of Adam and Eve (a meaning that is imbued with greater significance in light of Joyce's lifelong fear of thunder).
Meanwhile, Thomas Love Peacock coined two words, osteosarchaematosplanchnochondroneuromuelous (44 letters) and osseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary (51 letters), in his novel Headlong Hall (1816). The words roughly translate as 'of bone, flesh, blood, organs, gristle, nerve, and marrow' and describe the human body, though these haven't exactly taken on in medical, or indeed literary, circles.
Earlier in literature, we find an interesting 50-letter word in Francois Rabelais' sixteenth-century work Gargantua and Pantagruel. The word appears in the title of a made-up book that appears on the library shelves in Rabelais' ribald tale. The title of the book is Antipericatametaanaparcircumvolutiorectumgustpoops of the Coprofied. All we'll say here is that this title -- and the long word in it -- reflect the scatological flavor of the book as a whole (with 'rectumgustpoops' in the above translation giving a breezy sense of the flatulent-centric nature of the book).
Shakespeare himself used a nonce-word, honorificabilitudinitatibus, in his early play Love's Labor's Lost. At 27 letters, this is pretty long (and only one shorter than 'antidisestablishmentarianism,' often cited as the longest English word). It refers to the state or position of being able to achieve honors. But a peculiar fact about honorificabilitudinitatibus will no doubt appeal to epeolatrists (or worshipers of words): it is the longest word in English to comprise alternating consonants and vowels (which, if nothing else, is a fine pub quiz fact). The word is known as a 'hapax legomenon' -- a word or phrase which appears only once in an author's work. This nonce-word was used by Baconians, or those who claim that Francis Bacon wrote the plays, rather than the man from Stratford, to support their theory. Honorificabilitudinitatibus, you see, is an anagram of hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi, which translates into English as 'these plays, F. Bacon's offspring, are preserved for the world' (but of course...!).
However, did Shakespeare coin this word, after all? Honorificabilitudinitatibus appears in a work by Thomas Nashe -- the first person to use the word 'email' in 1594 -- in 1599, shortly after Shakespeare wrote Love's Labor's Lost, and earlier variants of this long word had been in circulation since the Middle Ages. As with many of Shakespeare's 'coinages,' he may have been the popularizer rather than out-and-out originator.
Although from a musical rather than a book, the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is worth mentioning here because, whilst it was used in the 1964 film Mary Poppins, similarly spelled variants of the word, such as supercalafajalistickespeealadojus, existed earlier, since at least 1949. This word, too, appears to have been a variant of an older nonce-word whose chief attraction was that it was so much longer than your average word.
The longest word in all of literature, however, is this offering from Aristophanes' play Assemblywomen:
At 183 letters, it exceeds even Joyce's lengthy coinages. It is the name for a fictional food dish containing meat, fish, and wine. It would probably take as long to order the dish in a restaurant as it would to eat it when it arrived.
Oliver Tearle is the author of Bewilderments of Vision: Hallucination and Literature, 1880-1914, now out in paperback, and the founder of the website Interesting Literature.