Shakespeare’s Most Amazing Word

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The Oxford English Dictionary attributes somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 words to William Shakespeare. He was certainly among the greatest word-coiners of all time, but his most fascinating word was not actually a coinage.

In Love’s Labours Lost, Act 5, Scene 1, the comic character Costard utters the ridiculously amazing word, honorificabilitudinitatibus. Yup. It’s real. Here’s the line:

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 long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.

Is that the craziest word you’ve ever seen? Flap-dragon* is a good one too, but come on! Honorificabilitudinitatibus? Are you kidding me?

It means “the state of being able to achieve honors.”

Here are seven reasons why this is Shakespeare’s greatest word:

  1. It is technically a legal word in Scrabble; however, it is too long to actually fit on an official Scrabble board.
  2. It is the longest English word that consists of alternating consonants and vowels. I didn’t even know there was a record for that!
  3. It is what is known as a hapax legomenon (something else I only recently learned existed). That means roughly “something said only once”. In other words, the word honorificabilitudinitatibus appears only once in all of Shakespeare’s works.
  4. It was once a source of some controversy. Some people have believed that the works attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by Francis Bacon, a well-known contemporary of the Bard. One of these “Baconians” figured out that the letters in honorificabilitudinitatibus could be reformed into hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi, which is Latin for “These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world.”
  5. It has thirteen syllables — one more than antidisestablishmentarianism.
  6. It is composed of 27 letters: 14 consonants and 13 vowels.
  7. It is ridiculously long and difficult to pronounce (see below).

He didn’t coin it. It appeared in several works published well before Love’s Labour’s Lost, which destroys the Baconians’ argument.

So, do you agree with me? Best Shakespearean word ever?

Oh, and in case you are wondering. Here’s how to pronounce it:

 

Note: After posting this, I realized that I had not only misspelled the word, but left out an entire syllable. Unfortunately, I had to leave the office before revising the video, and just left it, hoping no one would notice before I fixed it. Unfortunately, an astute viewer named Savannah caught me and provided her own correction. Her tone is deservedly stern, and I share her corrected pronunciation in shame:

*Flap-dragon, also called snap-dragon, is a game in which participants must snatch and eat raisins that have been placed in a bowl of brandy. Wait. Did I mention that the brandy  is on fire? Apparently, those Elizabethans had some interesting parties. In this passage, it’s the raisin itself that is referred to as a flap-dragon. 

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Savannah
    Savannah01-28-2012

    I’m counting 13 syllables, not 12….

    • Savannah
      Savannah01-28-2012

      In fact, the video and its title leave out the ‘ni’!

      • Savannah
        Savannah01-28-2012

        OK, I couldn’t resist offering this video response: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SIKqOPIGt0 “Get it right”

        • Brian Wasko
          Brian Wasko01-28-2012

          Rats. I was hoping no one would notice. I realized after posting the video that I left out a syllable, but I was late leaving the office and didn’t have the time to finish the revised version. I have been caught! :)

  2. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen01-28-2012

    “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 long by the head ashonorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.”

    Brian Wasko – my entire life is richer for reading this quote today.

    Imagine my extreme disappointment that although it is a legal Scrabble word, it’s too long for the board.

    Screaming “Not fair!!!” at the top of my lungs.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-28-2012

      Yes, it’s tragic. All’s fair in love and war–just not in Scrabble.

  3. Jenny
    Jenny01-28-2012

    I am so glad I stumbled across this in our Facebook feed today! I love Shakespeare, and I love words. Alas, mommyhood has greatly reduced the time I get to spend reading. What a fun post! Thanks for sharing. I feel so much smarter now.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-28-2012

      I’m glad too. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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