Saturday, 6 February 2010

A Most Humble Apology

Dear readers, I must apologise. I've been in London town the past few days, stranded without internet access. Thus, the blog has been desolate, frightened and alone in the ever expanding ether of the internet. More importantly, there's been nothing new for anyone to read on here, which fills me with more shame than a puppy on a damp carpet. So, in order to try to make up for my inexcusable tardiness, I present you with this post. After all, some of you may want to consider me worthless after my absence and I have to perfect word you can use to do so...


Yup, that's right. There's no typo here, it's all one word. Is it new? No, it's from the 18th century. Is it a real word? Yup. How the hell do you pronounce it? flok-ki-naw-ki-nahy-hil-uh-pil-uh-fi-kay-shun, or something similar. It means to deem some of little or no value, which means you can also make it into a verb by saying "floccinaucinihilipilificate". But where does such a beautifully complicated word come from?

To answer that, start by looking at the word, and breaking it up into little tiny bits. "Flocci", "nauci", "nihili", and "pili" all come from Latin words which mean "nothing". Well, I say that, but "flocci" comes from "floccus" which means a bit of wool, and "pili" is the plural of "pilus", which means hair, but both are used to suggest a quantity so small it's not worth bothering with. It's a lovely notion, because it leaves you with "not worth it - nothing - nothing - not worth it - fication", in a literal sense.

So we've got a gratuitously long word based almost entirely in Latin. Clearly, it's too long for practical use, and so we need to find some jokers trained in the classics, if we're to find those responsible for this word. Because we're looking at around the first half of the 1700s, they'll be childish, Latin-speaking (i.e. rich), and probably quite influential, seeing as how it got in to the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Where, then, could such a word have come in to this world except for Eton College?

It's generally agreed that "floccinaucinihilipilification" is the invention of some Eton boys, although we can't say exactly when, because they wouldn't have been writing it down much, unless they wanted to explain it to their tutors, and by "explain to" I mean "get thrashed by". We do, fortunately, have a letter from 1741 by a chap named Shenstone where he says,

"I loved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money"

Clearly he was up on his Eton lingo, because he managed to get the spelling right (try it without looking at any other copy, it's a nightmare!). I'm also told that the composition of the Latin grammar in the word is typically Etonian, but I wouldn't know, not being made of money or scholarships.

Nowadays, "floccinaucinihilipilification" sees little use, except when people are trying to find examples of long words, or just plain showing off. I remember finding it by luck when my sister claimed she could spell out any word I cared to mention, and I opened the dictionary on its entry (the fun we have!). There was, though, an American senator in 1999 who used "floccinaucinihilipilification" in a speech he gave to congress, but I suspect he was just being a show-off with big words.

I say that like it's a bad thing, but that's what it's there for. "Floccinaucinihilipilification" exists purely to be an overly complicated word. It's a schoolboy joke, it's fiendishly hard to spell, and it makes you look clever. Just mentioning it is over the top, let alone trying to put it into context. So, I won't complain over its use. I never would, actually. If I ever got that, in full, in a text, it would make my day. So, what say you? Shall we carry on what those bally boys of Eton started 270 years ago? If people are going to moan about English getting dumber, let's prove them wrong! Let us floccinaucinihilipilificate their claims!


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