My husband told me with glee that Nicholas Byfield had a great big stone ‘like flint’ in his bladder, weighing 33 ounces, which ‘exceedingly afflicted’ him for 15 years, until it killed him in 1622, aged 44. It did not stop him writing about the Epistle to the Colossians and remarking that Christ’s divine nature is ‘incircumscriptible in respect of place’. This is doubtless true, but most interest has focused on the length of the word.
In 1900 James Murray, the great editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (to the new history of which by Peter Gilliver I keenly look forward), completed the section I–Infer. ‘Those who are interested in the length of words,’ he noted in an introduction, ‘will observe that incircumscriptibleness, which forms the catch-word on p. 154, has as many letters as honorificabilitudinity.’
So it does. But what is a word? Have you ever heard anyone say honorificabilitudinity in a sentence? Collectors of words note the line in Love’s Labour’s Lost where Costard says to Moth: ‘I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word, for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus.’ That is a word merely being cited, not used, and a Latin word at that. People speculate that Shakespeare picked it up at school, from Erasmus’s Adages. The year after Love’s Labour’s Lost, Thomas Nashe came out with it too, in Lenten Stuffe, where as usual he is drunk with wordplay.
Honorificabilitudinitas had already been kicking around as an exhibit for 800 years. It is in a book by Petrus Grammaticus, who taught in Charlemagne’s court: Berne public library has put a ninth-century manuscript of it online. Dante, despite not being on the internet, reached for the word when writing De Vulgari Eloquentia, citing it as too long for a line of poetry. Anyway, clever old Du Cange in his 17th-century Latin glossary managed to find honorificabilitudinitas genuinely used as a word in a 13th-century history. Pretty well everyone else has used it as a specimen, in the longest form possible. I wanted to say something about Chrononhotonthologos, but I’ve run out of space and Matthew Parris is looking angry.