Monday, February 23, 2009

The H-Bus

Two days after blogiversary festivities and one day after the required post-festivities period of recuperation, I’m back on track, making up for the word of the week I neglected to do this weekend. It’s more than a doozy. A doozleplex? A doozydoozy? A doobleoozy?
honorificabilitudinitatibus (hah-no-rif-i-ka-bil-i-too-dee-nee-ta-bus) — noun: the state of quality of being able to achieve honors.
(And I am only guessing on the pronunciation. Most articles on the word focus more on its strange history than on how to say it, I’m guessing because you probably wouldn’t ever speak this work, even if you wanted to. As for which syllables would be accented, I can only guess.)

Quite a mouthful, especially when honorableness would do the trick, as Word Web points out. This verbal oddity gets mentioned fairly often in word nerd circles, for all the right reasons.

First off, it is considered by some to be the longest word coined by Shakespeare, though dissenters might point out that he simply borrowed it from Medieval Latin. It’s the word honorificabilitudinitas, in the plural ablative form. (The ablative case is used in Latin more or less in specific prepositional constructions. Of all the languages one might learn in a typical American high school, I’m pretty sure Latin is the only one that uses the ablative, at least by that name.)

It’s also the longest word Shakespeare ever used, counting the ones other people made up. Though it’s used in Love’s Labour’s Lost and I have read this play, I have no recollection of it. It’s spoken by Costard in the first scene of the fifth act. “O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. / I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; / for thou art not so long by the head as / honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.” As if I needed to cram more worthless information into this post, I’m going to explain that last reference. A flap-dragon — which is apparently interchangeable with snap-dragon — apparently can be several things, though it seems most likely that Costard means the first one in the below list:
  • A worthless or trivial thing.
  • A Dutchman or a German, though to speak of such people in this way would not endear you to them. (It’s something to keep in mind if you travel back in time to seventeenth-century Europe.)
  • A fiendish sounding game that apparently bored people played on Christmas Eve in which they would attempt to snatch raisins out from a bowl of flaming brandy. (This could have been the game of kings back in the day, but I can’t help thinking that those who played flap-dragon then would be the ones smoking meth today.)
  • The bowl itself.
  • The raisins themselves.
  • Or whatever other fruit you decide to play the game with.
  • The one thing that Costard’s remark isn’t referring to, apparently, is the one thing I knew as a snapdragon prior to writing this post: those flowers that look like a dragon’s head and move when you squeeze them. The name for the genus is antirrhinum. The flower is oddly mentioned nowhere on the page for flap-dragon, despite that the flower is the one children should be encouraged to play with.
Honorificabilitudinitatibus is also the longest English word to alternate consonant-to-vowel from one letter to the next.

Despite this fact, it does not use the letter “e,” the most common vowel. The next-longest word to omit this letter is the equally phenomenal floccinaucinihilipilification — “the act of habit of describing or regarding something as useless,” which just happens to be what most people do to honorificabilitudinitatibus.

Wikipedia points out that by virtue of being used only once in Shakespeare’s collective works, honorificabilitudinitatibus is also a hapax legomenon, a fun title to give to words that only appear once in the written record of a language or a single text. For example, until the posting of this entry, floccinaucinihilipilification was a hapax legomenon on Back of the Cereal box. But it ain’t no more.

James Joyce also used honorificabilitudinitatibus, as World Wide Words points out, but no one apparently cares about this as much as Shakespeare’s use of it. I’m guessing Joyce used it more than once, thus preventing it from being a hapax legomenon but possibly also indicating that Joyce was the better writer since he found more than one apt occasion to use it.

Finally, and perhaps most spectacularly, the word is notable because Baconophiles — that is, those who love Francis Bacon — take its presence in Love’s Labor’s Lost as evidence that Bacon himself wrote the play and all of the other Shakespeare plays as well. Apparently this is a thing that people like to think. The word happens to be an anagram for the Latin phrase hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi, meaning “these plays, F. Bacon's offspring, are preserved for the world.” This website takes it a bit further and gets into numerological theories that tie the word with creepy Rosicrucian stuff. More germane to the discussion of the play’s authorship, the appearance of honorificabilitudinitatibus in Love’s Labor’s Lost is followed by another strange line. Armado’s page Moth asks, “…what is a / B, spelt backward, with the horn on his head?” The conspiracy theorists allege that Moth’s question is a coded reference to Bacon — “Bacorn,” with the first two letters being those “spelt backward” and the corn meaning “horn” in the sense of unicorns and tricorn hats. Very strange, but suitably so, given the subject at hand.

Previous words of the week:

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