What is the longest word in the world?

We all know someone who likes to throw in a big word every now and then, but the chances are they’ve never been able to work pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis into a normal conversation. It is the longest word in the English language, at least according to most recognized dictionaries, but it’s just the start as we look through the candidates for the world’s longest word.

And unfortunately Mary Poppins supercalifragilisticexpialidocious doesnt count.

longest word in the world dictionary

Clocking in at a staggering 45 letters, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis dates back to the 1930s and refers to a specific disease that causes inflammation of the lungs due to the inhalation of very fine silicate or quartz dust. While encountering the word in everyday life would be impressive, it might also indicate a serious problem with your health.

Though it appears in most major dictionaries, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is a bit of a cheat. It was coined by the president of the National Puzzlers’ League, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, who created it “in imitation of polysyllabic medical terms…but occurring only as an instance of a very long word.” Basically – it’s a deliberately long word.

Another contender is the full name of a protein more commonly known as “titin”. If you think 45 letters is long, this consists of a mind-blowing 189,819 letters and would take more than three hours to repeat. I’ll save us both the time, and simply give you the first few syllables and the last: “Methionylthreonylthreonylglutaminylarginyl … isoleucine”. Science is filled with other lengthy examples. A single molecule of DNA could eventually last over a billion letters.

longest word in the world dna
The three-letter term DNA is usually enough to suffice.

Thankfully, Oxford Dictionaries say these are “regarded as chemical names rather than genuine words in the sense of meaningful items of vocabulary. The same is true of the formal names of chemical compounds. These can be almost unlimited in length … and many contain numerals, Roman and Greek letters, and other symbols, as well as ordinary letters. We don’t tend to regard these terms as proper ‘words’.” 

At 29 letters, we have flocci­nauci­nihili­pili­fication. It’s the largest non-technical word in the dictionary, but it is made up of the Latin words locci, nauci, nihili, pili, plus “-fication”. It means “the act of estimating something as worthless” and has been recorded in use all the way back in 1741.

This brings us to antidisestablishmentarianism at 28 letters, yet widely believed to be English’s longest word. Outside of technical terms and coined words, it just might be. Sadly, antidisestablishmentarianism is not always recognized by dictionaries. 

longest word in the world  dictionary
Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Getty Images)

The Sanskrit language also has a contender for the longest word in any language. It certainly boasts the longest word to appear in literature, written in the Varadāmbikā Pariṇaya Campū by Tirumalāmbādue. The word was awarded the Guinness World Record and exists because of the agglutinative (the process in which words are composed of a sequence of morphemes) nature of Sanskrit. It consists of 195 Sanskrit letters, or 428 in the roman transliteration. You can find it written out in both below:




So what does it mean? Well, here’s the definition: “In it, the distress, caused by thirst, to travelers, was alleviated by clusters of rays of the bright eyes of the girls; the rays that were shaming the currents of light, sweet and cold water charged with the strong fragrance of cardamom, clove, saffron, camphor and musk and flowing out of the pitchers (held in) the lotus-like hands of maidens (seated in) the beautiful water-sheds, made of the thick roots of vetiver mixed with marjoram, (and built near) the foot, covered with heaps of couch-like soft sand, of the clusters of newly sprouting mango trees, which constantly darkened the intermediate space of the quarters, and which looked all the more charming on account of the trickling drops of the floral juice, which thus caused the delusion of a row of thick rainy clouds, densely filled with abundant nectar.”

It’s almost a whole story unto itself. To think Hemingway needed six words for his famous short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (We’ll ignore that Hemingway’s connection to the story is unsubstantiated.)

Read More: Susie Dent’s Top 10s: Ten words to make you sigh

Until 2013, Germany had a 63-letter word for a specific beef label law, yet when the law changed the word disappeared. For old times’ sake, however, we’ll include Rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsaufgabenuebertragungsgesetz. German has a similar agglutinative style as Sanskrit, and has famously long words for specific things.

longest word in the world Llanfairpwllgwyngyll
Llanfairpwllgwyngyll railway station sign; Wales

In terms of words that could conceivably appear in conversational English, there are a select few that measure over 20 letters. Deinstitutionalization and counterrevolutionaries each have 22 letters (though there is debate over both as single words), while incomprehensibilities scores 21. 

And just while we’re here, let us remember Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It is the longest place name in Wales, and mentioning it means we can attach the brilliant video of Liam Dutton nailing its pronunciation.

There you go, simple as that.

If you liked this story, then check out some of our articles by the brilliant lexicographer Susie Dent. From malaphors and bugbears to Americanisms that aren’t actually American, she’s got something for everyone interested in the curiosities of our wonderful language.

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