Wednesday, April 24, 2013

`I Met the Scholars Coming Home'

Boys, and perhaps girls, collect superlatives. That’s why we read the Guinness Book of World Records and why some troll the shallows of Wikipedia. When a professor I know at Rice University showed up in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! – he and a colleague devised the darkest known material, reflecting only 0.045 percent of visible light – I had him autograph it for my younger sons (a first for him, he said). Superlatives distinguish the interesting from the dull, with the dull defined as the quotidian world, the familiar stuff we see and do daily. 

The boys in my set knew beyond question the longest word in the language: antidisestablishmentarianism – 28 letters of near-gibberish, a Germanic welding of bureaucratic-sounding prefixes, freakishly protracted and useless, a word fit only for the museum. The Irish poet Bernard O’Donoghue has another suggestion in “Long Words” (Selected Poems, 2008): 

“I can’t remember what enterprise it was
We were breaking to each other
That made Denis John give me the word:
`My grandmother’ (I knew her: a woman
Forever at her prayers) `says
The longest word in the world is

“So far I haven’t found one longer than it,
For all my browsing in the Dictionary.
`Though I didn’t go to school myself,’
The old people were fond of saying,
`Still I met the scholars coming home.’” 

O’Donoghue’s longest word is blarney. “Transcranscriptiation” shows up neither in the Oxford English Dictionary nor when entered online into search engines. Perhaps that’s his point: For kids, superlatives are more mythology than bona fide data. They’re argument fodder. The OED is a little sniffy about “antidisestablishmentarianism”: “Properly, opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England (rare): but popularly cited as an example of a long word.” The third of its three citations, from The Oxford Guide to Word Games, dates from 1984: “The longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism…and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” 

O’Donoghue’s point is found in the last three lines of the poem, with the business about long words more of a set up for the punch line. It’s a variation on the romantic notion that the young and innocent are possessed of a wisdom exceeding their elders’, that a child may be wise beyond his or her years. The idea is often expressed with the elliptical phrase “Out of the mouths of babes…,” cribbed unwittingly from Psalms 8:2 in the King James Bible: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.” This is echoed in Matthew 21:16: “And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” 

Still, the conventional folk wisdom of O’Donoghue’s old people is charming, and one occasionally meets a young scholar of daunting intelligence. I have several at home. 

[Go here, here, here and here for more on the longest words in English, and here for the longest one-syllable words.]


Unknown said...

Pnumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. It was amusing to show students how simple it was to decipher the meaning of this multisyllabic, compared to short words that required a dictionary.

George said...

Is that what the last three lines are saying? I should have said that the saying "Though I didn't go to school myself, yet I met the scholars coming home." meant that was was unschooled but not unlearned.