Column: A tendentious excoriation of sesquipedalianism


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

At some point, you learned the word “antidisestablishmentarianism.” You may not know what it means, but at least you know it. Never mind that it has to do with people who wanted to maintain the Anglican Church’s status as the official Church of England in the 1800s — it has 12 syllables! That’s a word worth knowing!

The longest word in the English language weighs in at 45 letters and 19 syllables. Appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” and means “a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny pieces of volcanic dust.” The disease already had a name (silicosis), but in 1935, the National Puzzlers’ League wanted to coin a new longest word to replace the puny 23-letter word “electrophotomicrographically” as the longest word the League recognized.

There’s actually a word for unusually long, multisyllabic words: “sesquipedalian.” The word “sesquipedalian” is itself sesquipedalian. As a noun, a person can be considered a sesquipedalian if they are prone to using super long words, especially when shorter ones would suffice. To me, sesquipedalian people come across as pretentious, but don’t tell them that — they’re likely to question your honorificabilitudinity (honorableness).

While many people feel smarter using long words, my floccinaucinihilipilification (the act of deciding that something is of little value) ended in my harsh judgment of others’ circumlocution. Personally, I’m abstentious when it comes to using long words, as it discombobulates my aversion to grandiloquent, superfluous fastidiousness.

Now, before you festinate (hurry) to accuse me of being sententious (preachy) about sesquipedalian words, this farcical diatribe is no legerdemain (sleight of hand). What I’m trying to say here is that, in my opinion, using unnecessarily long words obfuscates (obscures) your message.

If your goal is clear communication, adopt Mark Twain’s advice he wrote to D.W. Bowser in 1880: “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.”

While Twain and I share animadversions (critical remarks) toward sesquipedalianism, I promise my goal here isn’t to be disputatious (argumentative). If you want to impress someone, lose the long words and get to the point. In all earnestness, Hemingway nailed it when he wrote, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” Thank you for indulging my tendentious excoriation of sesquipedalianism, even if it bordered on inconsequential persiflage.