Shakespeare’s Longest Word

Love's Labor's LostHonorificabilitudinitatibus comes from a Medieval Latin word that roughly translated means “the state of being able to achieve honors.” Shakespeare uses the word only once in all of his works—in Love’s Labor’s Lost. (It’s not the sort of word or meaning that comes up often in casual conversation!) Honorificabilitudinitatibus is also the longest word in the English language featuring only alternating consonants and vowels. The word appeared in print as early as an 8th-century grammar book and as recently as a 2011 children’s novel.

Love’s Labor’s Lost itself is a “feast of words,” and the verbosity of several characters provides fodder fit for a word gourmand of the first order.

Costard the swain and Don Armado, a “fantastical shepherd,” both enjoy using big words and often do so to ridiculous, if not disastrous, effect. Early in the play Don Armado engages Costard to deliver a love letter. The Spaniard gives Costard a coin, telling him, “There is remuneration.”

As Costard gazes at the money, he discusses the coin and the word with himself until one wonders whether Costard values the word or the coin more:

Now will I look to his remuneration. Remuneration!
O, that’s the Latin word for three farthings: three
farthings—remuneration.—’What’s the price of this
inkle?’—’One penny.’—’No, I’ll give you a
remuneration:’ why, it carries it. Remuneration!
why, it is a fairer name than French crown. I will
never buy and sell out of this word.

So it seems apt that Shakespeare places honorificabilitudinitatibus in the mouth of the logophile Costard. When Costard overhears Don Armado and Holofernes (Holofernia in our play) prating on in Latin, he brandishes some Latin of his own, telling Moth, Armado’s juvenile page,

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.

(Of course, this raises the question of what a flap-dragon is. Evidently, it was both a game in which players snatched raisins out of a dish of burning brandy and tossed them, ablaze, into their mouths and said flaming fruit. This was big fun pre-technology.)

With 27 letters, honorificabilitudinitatibus lags only one letter behind antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest non-coined, nontechnical word in English and seven letters behind Mary Poppins’ celebrated supercalifragilisticexpialidocious coinage.

But wait! There’s more. The longest word ever to appear in literature was coined by the Greek playwright Aristophanes to describe a horrific-sounding fricassee of fish, birds, and sauces. The transliterated word is 183 letters long, hence its not appearing here.

The longest published word is 1,909 letters long and is, not surprisingly, a chemical name. The absolute longest word in English (another preposterous chemical atrocity) is purported to be 189,819 letters long. But the word doesn’t appear in any dictionary. Not much honorificabilitudinitatibus in that.

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