Very few German linguists were in mourning yesterday after the loss of their language’s longest (and perhaps most obscure) word.
It has 63 letters and would span more than four Scrabble boards, but is no more after a change in EU law.
The word, abbreviated to RkReÜAÜG (and reproduced at the bottom of this article to avoid page display problems!) means “beef-labelling monitoring assessment assignment law” and was conceived in 1999 in the wake of the BSE crisis. Now Brussels has relaxed testing rules and the law has been ditched, along with RkReÜAÜG.
Where does that leave a language fond of words so long they require a sip of water to get through? The longest word in Duden, the German dictionary, is Kraftfahrzeughaftpflichtversicherung (36 letters; “motor-vehicle liability insurance”) but Guinness World Records also records Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (39 letters; “insurance firms providing legal protection”).
Cumbersome compounds abound in other languages, most notably in Scandinavia, but are rarer in English. Where they do feature, “their currency comes down to the fact they’re freakish and remembered as being long,” says Denny Hilton, senior assistant editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED’s longest word is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters) but its definition reads: “invented [by the] president of the National Puzzlers’ League in imitation of polysyllabic medical terms, alleged to mean ‘a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine sand and ash dust’ but occurring only as an instance of a very long word”.
Other oddities include floccinaucinihilipilification (“the action or habit of estimating as worthless”), as invented by Latin geeks and listed in the OED as “humorous”. See also: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (“nonsense word, originally used esp. by children, and typically expressing excited approbation”) and honorificabilitudinitatibus, as used by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost and listed in the OED as honorificabilitudinity, meaning “honourableness”.
What, then, is the longest non-humorous, vaguely normal word in English? Over to Hilton: “An example of a long word in less self-conscious use is anthropomorphologically. It means ‘with anthropomorphic use of language’, has 23 letters and was included in the first fascicle of the OED in 1884.” Not bad, if only one and a bit Scrabble boards long.