Over at my obscure words website, The Phrontistery, there’s been a word that has been the subject of many astonished inquiries over the years: eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, which means simply ‘good’. At 30 letters, it’s the longest word on a site that’s full of them. More to the point, because my site is one of the most prominent places you can find the word, and because it doesn’t appear in any standard dictionaries (including the mammoth Oxford English Dictionary), over the years, I have had many people write to ask whether it is in fact a real word at all.
So to try to answer this question, first let me tell you about how eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious came to be in my list. Back at the dawn of the Internet (well, OK, more like 1996), I had no idea that my word list would still be around (and over twice as long) seventeen years later. Nowadays, I wouldn’t rely on a source like this for adding words to my list, but I was less picky back then, and I took words wherever I found them. Combing my old email (I admit it – I have a complete record of all my emails going back to 1995. But questions like this are why I hoard them), I discovered that I found the word in something called the Slang Teasers Dictionary, vol. II. Slang Teasers is a game like Balderdash except instead of cards with words on them, there is a little silver paperback dictionary from which you pick words. It was published in Canada in 1985, and as far as I can tell is generally forgotten today, although you can still buy the book used on Amazon.com for $50 if the mood strikes you. Anyway, I still have the book, and there is eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, defined as ‘very good; very fine’.
But where did the creators of the game find it? Whenever I’ve been asked, I haven’t really had a satisfactory answer. I’ve told various people that I suspected it to be a nonce-word – that is, a word created ‘for the nonce’, to solve a one-time need in communication, without any expectation that it will become standardized or widely accepted. The fact that its first six letters, read backwards, spell gollee (whereas eellog is very odd according to the patterns of English orthography) suggest that its inventor may not have been entirely serious. Nonce-words can end up becoming used more widely – that’s often why they end up in dictionaries – but they start out in a single specific context and aren’t expected by their creators to go any further. There are tons of nonce-words created to mean ‘good’; if I say to you, “Wow, this donut is superfantrobulous’, you’ll know what I mean, even though I just made it up. Most of them are never written down and never repeated.
A short while ago, when I created my Long Words page on the Phrontistery, I returned to the vexing subject of the origin of eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious and after a couple minutes’ searching, turned up this entry over at the wonderful Futility Closet, which at least gave me a source in an actual dictionary, Weseen’s Dictionary of American Slang, but seemed unlikely to go further. A search on Google Books produced a couple of false positives (no, it wasn’t really used in some novel from 1845), some modern reuses (analogous to my Slang Teasers), and one from a 1934 review of Weseen’s dictionary. Nevertheless, I tracked down a copy of Weseen’s dictionary, which I just got on Thursday from my friendly interlibrary loans department, and sure enough, there it is, defined as ‘very good; very fine’ but with no further information.
So where did Weseen find it? With nothing relevant in Google Books (and in fact, nothing in several other sources I use from time to time), it seemed as if I had reached a dead end. However, two facts gave me hope:
1) While Weseen’s dictionary is fairly simplistic (he provides only words and one-line definitions), he was no crank; he was (according to the title page), ‘Associate Professor of English, University of Nebraska’ and ‘Author of Crowell’s Dictionary of English Grammar and Handbook of American Usage; Words Confused and Misused; Write Better Business Letters; Everyday Uses of English. His introduction is clear and well-written and emphasizes the wide range of texts and spoken contexts where slang is found, suggesting to me that he wasn’t just making stuff up.
2) The fact that the word didn’t show up in a search for eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious is not immediately fatal because there can be many opportunities to misspell such a word (one l or two near the start? shouldn’t it be ‘hippopo’ rather than ‘hipoppo’?, etc.), and many opportunities for Google Books’ optical character recognition (OCR) to get it wrong as well.
But despite multiple attempts at respelling, nothing came up, and I was starting to get frustrated. So I changed strategies, and decided to search for some of the other weird-looking words in Weseen’s dictionary. I found an awful lot of them that seemed to have come from early issues of Dialect Notes, an early publication of the American Dialect Society and a predecessor to its current journal, American Speech. Fortunately, much of this journal (at least, that part published pre-1922) is in the public domain and available online. A substantial number of searches from Weseen’s words ended up going to articles by Louise Pound, a major American folklorist and dialectologist, the first female president of the Modern Language Association, and one of the founders of American Speech, who was … wait for it … a professor of English at the University of Nebraska, along with Weseen. And sure enough, a little more searching turned up the elusive reference I had been looking for: Pound’s 1916 article “Word-List from Nebraska (III)”, Dialect Notes 4(3): 271-282, which is a list of slang terms she collected from her students in the early 1910s. And lo and behold:
We can also see immediately why Google hadn’t turned it up in my searches – because it was broken up using hyphens and dots, it didn’t turn up as a whole word. (I believe that the dots are being used to indicate stress, while the hyphens are orthographic – i.e., they’re meant to be used when the word is spelled out, even though none of my later sources do so. The source is listed as a contributor from western Oregon, but Pound also assures us in her introduction that “Unless note to other effect is made, each word on the list was known to at least six people, coming generally from different sections of the state” (Pound 1916: 271). I’m not sure whether the note is meant to suggest that in this case, only one student, from Oregon, knew the word, or whether others from Nebraska also were familiar with it.
So at this point I could have been satisfied that Weseen got it from Pound and then called it a day. But then I found this very curious entry just two pages later:
Now, it didn’t define hypoppercanorious for me, but one doesn’t need advanced training in linguistics to see that it’s basically eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious minus the eellogo and the fusciou. This one was known by students both from Nebraska and Massachusetts. The entry sent me off to the previous volume of Dialect Notes, and to yet another article by Pound and to yet another word, flippercanorious, defined as ‘fine, grand’ and indicated to have been used in Nebraska. And indeed, while hypoppercanorious is not in Weseen, flippercanorious is there, defined as ‘grand; elegant’.
So these three words all generally mean ‘good’ or ‘fine’ or ‘grand’ and presumably eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious, with all those extra morpheme-looking bits on the front end, is intensified and so means ‘very good’ or ‘very fine’. Gollee! But this set of entries also shows that at least in the early-to-mid 1910s, and possibly later, this set of related words were used by youth from coast to coast, perhaps most widely in Nebraska, presumably mostly in speech (or else they’d show up in more texts). No mere nonce-words, these seem (at least the shorter ones) to have been in some sort of regular usage among at least some youth-oriented or college-oriented speech communities for at least a little while. Slang – to be sure. Jocular – of course. But definitely ‘real’ words used more than once by more than one person. It makes me much more comfortable leaving eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious on my list, right where it’s been for the past 17 years.
After all this, there’s still one question remaining: why on earth would you need such an unwieldy synonym for ‘good’? Granting that ‘flippercanorious’ isn’t so bad, and ‘hypoppercanorious’ is at least manageable, ‘eellogofusciouhippopokunurious’ strains the tongue and the eyes. So why bother? The word’s value lies in its very size. Compare ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, another super-long English word that, contrary to popular belief, didn’t originate with Mary Poppins at all, but, quite possibly, in a very similar context, among the youth of the 1910s, and certainly by the 1930s. Or ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’, created by students at Eton in the 18th century out of four Latin roots, to mean ‘to value as worthless’. Or ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’, created as a joke in the 1930s by the president of the National Puzzlers’ League. All of these words are coined facetiously, have simpler synonyms, and serve as an emblem of social value for their users, pointing to themselves as clever people who know long words. Even ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’, which refers to a real 19th century political movement in Great Britain, wasn’t actually used as a word in 19th century Great Britain. The earliest reference in the OED is from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1923 edition) in the ‘Long words’ section.
In fact, the only places where any of these words normally show up in ordinary usage today is in discussions of what is the longest English word. They each have a definition, which gives their lexical meaning, but their meaning in context and in actual use – their social meaning – is to show off the fact that one knows long words, and presumably, by extension, that one is intelligent. It is a small wonder that these words are developed and used frequently by students – those who have the most to gain by claiming cultural capital associated with intellect. As a linguistic anthropologist, I want to know what words mean, of course, but I also want to know how they are used in actual social contexts. And really, what we have here is a whole category of words that, regardless of their specific meaning, are used in the same way, to impress and overawe the listener or reader with their users’ erudition. That’s pretty darn eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious indeed.