Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Fear of Hippos Using Monstrous Words

A new half of the year, a new cycle of strange and wonderful words. I’m not going to keep alphabetical order for this run-through, and I’ve this week decided to go with an “H” word, if only because honorificabilitudinitatibus was starting to look lonely.

In the way that the proper term for the inability to pronounce the letter “S” actually has an “S” in it and the proper term for the inability to pronounce the letter “R” actually has an “R” in it, it seems similarly unjust that the word for the fear of long words would itself be obscenely long.
hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (hi-pe-POT-e-mon-stre-SES-kwi-pe-DAY-lee-an) — noun: the fear of long words.
Of course, it’s not a generally accepted term. According to those with a knowledge of words and, really, anyone with common sense, it’s a joke that word that lengthens the already unwieldy word sesquipedaliophobia, which itself means “fear of long words” and which seems to based off the word sesquipedalian. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, sesquipedalian goes back to the Latin phrase sesquipedalia verba, literally “words a food-and-a-half-long,” which Horace uses in his Ars Poetica to illustrate the very thing he is criticizing. Presumably, Horace chose this phrase for the same reason someone would centuries later tack parts of the words hippopotamus and monstrous onto sesquipedalian to make it even more humorously long.

Wiktionary notes that with these additions, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia could be read to mean “the hippopotamus- and monster-related fear of long words.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but I must agree with another assertion: the four syllable phrase fear of long words gets to the point just as easily.

Credit to June Casagrande, whose word blog, Conjugate Visits, introduced me to hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia to begin with.

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