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What Is Sesquipedalianism?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sesquipedalianism is a literary term for the extravagant use of exceedingly long words. “Sesquipedalian” literally means “words that are a foot and a half long.” It is a form of self-referential language joke, as the word “sesquipedalianism” is itself a very long word. The English language has a plethora of such multisyllabic words, most of which are used for humorous or showy effect. These include words like “antidisestablishmentarianism” that rarely, if ever, come up in casual conversation.

The phrase sesquipedalia verba was coined by the Roman humorist Horace in the 1st century BC. Horace was satirizing another writer’s habit of using long words. The Latin term sesqui means “one and a half” and ped means foot; hence, words that are a foot and a half long. Horace’s phrase was translated into English in the 1650s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a standard reference for language usage. The OED states that the word “sesquipedalianism” was first recorded in 1863.

Some sesquipedalian words are created by the addition of multiple prefixes and suffixes to otherwise ordinary terms. This is the case with “antidisestablishmentarianism,” a term used in the conflict over state establishment of religion in Great Britain in the 19th century. The word, with 12 syllables encompassing 28 letters, is considered the longest non-scientific word in the English language. Only a few scientific terms have greater length; the most famous is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of volcanic dust. That word is far more likely to appear in discussions of sesquipedalianism than in medical treatises, however.

Word hobbyists and language professionals are the most likely users of sesquipedalian words. American writer and political activist William F. Buckley was noted for his use of vastly long words, even when writing spy novels for the popular market. In the 1930s adventures of pulp-fiction hero Doc Savage, the supporting character Johnny Littlejohn was a famous sesquipedalianist. In times of crisis, Johnny was inclined to use unlikely phrases such as “I’ll be superamalgamated!” Most sesquipedalian phrases are likewise used for humorous effect.

Like many hobbyists, language lovers are prone to try topping each other and setting new records. Thus, for word lovers who think the word “sesquipedalian” is too short, an even longer alternative exists. The word is “hyperpolysyllabicsesquipedalianism,” and it means the same thing as “sesquipedalianism;” while real, it clearly only exists to inflate sesquipedalianism to new heights of absurdity. For those who feel this is all just too much, there is the word “hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia.” It means “the fear of extremely long words.”

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Discussion Comments
By anon341365 — On Jul 11, 2013

Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson used the word in a question and answer session at HHMI.

By ceilingcat — On Jul 23, 2012

This article is right. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say the word "antidisestablishmentarianism" in a conversation unless it was a conversation about long words. Most people here in the United States don't spend a lot of time talking about religion in Great Britain.

Either way, I tend to gravitate towards longer words in my writing and my speech. I'm waiting for the day when someone throws the term sesquipedalianism at me! It could totally happen, so at least now if it does, I'll know what it means.

By sunnySkys — On Jul 23, 2012

@KaBoom - I think we all know a few people like that! I'm personally going to remember this word for my next game of Scrabble. I think you could probably get a lot of points with a word that long.

I'm also going to remember hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia. I certainly know a few people that seem like they're allergic to words and reading. Next time I get into a conversation with someone like that (or see their horribly misspelled posts on a social networking site) I'm going to think of that word!

I do have to say though, I find it ironic that the term for the phobia of big words is so long!

By KaBoom — On Jul 22, 2012

I think it's awesome and hilarious that this term was originated by a humorist trying to be funny and made it's way into the English language somehow. Sesquipedalianism is definitely a word that sounds like what it means!

I know a few people who are always using huge words, and I think I'm going to throw this term at them next time they do, just to see if they know what it means. On the other hand, if they don't already know this word, I'll just be giving them another big word for their arsenal.

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