Posted by: suekenney | August 13, 2011

Cadent? Vastidity? Gimmor? Is That English?

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Image via Wikipedia

I love words.  I believe I’ve said that before – but I REALLY REALLY do like words.  And my terse Anglo-Saxon forebears must be turning cartwheels in their barrows, because I especially love long, sonorous, grandiloquent words.  In a previous blog I mentioned words like serendipity and iridescent, and my all-time favorite, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

Well, I’ve found another one that could get onto my top ten list, thanks to Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English.  In his chapter on Shakespeare (who is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the greatest user and innovator of the English language EVER), Lord Bragg mentions some of the words that Shakespeare used, but that never caught on in daily parlance:  words like cadent and vastidity and questrist

And honorificabilitudinatibus.

Say what?  Honorificabilitudinatibus.  Wow!  Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?  Trippingly, as Hamlet might say?

Okay, maybe not.  That’s 25 letters and 12 syllables of stumble-over-your-tongue gawkiness.  And actually, as I was looking up the word for some more information, I found several places where it was spelled differently:  honorificabilitudinitatibus.  That’s 27 letters and 13 syllables.  Have to really work to get this one right.

So what on earth could this mean?  And why bother with such a huge, awkward word?  As to the first question, it means “with honor” (or “with honour” in Bragg’s British spelling).  Or as Wikipedia has it, “the state of being able to achieve honours.”  It’s from the Latin.  In fact, the Italian author Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) used a form of the word long before Shakespeare, in an essay he wrote in Latin; and another form was used even earlier (1187) in a Latin charter.

Shakespeare, to be honest, used the word only once in all of his writings, making it a hapax legomenon (see below) – in Act V, Scene i of Love’s Labours Lost, in a speech by a character named Costard.  I can sympathize with the poor actors who have played Costard and have had to pronounce this gangly word day after day, through numerous presentations of the play.

As to my second question, why bother with such a word?  I’ll grant you that it will undoubtedly never catch on in everyday conversation.  With its various forms running anywhere from 9 to 13 syllables, and ours being a culture that rarely uses words of more than 4 or 5 syllables – well, it’s no conversational gem.

Mostly I like the word because of its novelty (to me) and its uniqueness.  It is, after all, the longest word in the English language with alternating consonants and vowels.  It is a hapax legomenon (a transliteration of a Greek phrase meaning “something said only once” and another neat phrase I learned while looking up honorificabilitudinitatibus) in Shakespeare’s works.  And it makes an interesting game to try to figure out the different parts of the word and what they mean.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to rattle off honorificabilitudinitatibus as easily as I can say pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, and stop a few more students in their tracks.  That will be fun.  In the meantime, I’ll stick with some shorter words a la Shakespeare:

Let me not drumble; before you become frampold with the vastidity of my gimmor, and firk me for my cautelous whoobub, I will agnise my charact and clepe myself attasked.

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Responses

  1. I don’t remember the name of the book, but I remember a paperback we had when I was a kid. It was about the etymology of various well-known words and had a lot of cartoons (I mostly remember those). A great little primer to the joy of language.

    • I think what you’re thinking of is What’s Behind the Word by Sam and Beryl Epstein. I have in my possession the copy I grew up with. It’s the one from which I learned that marvelous word, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.


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