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  • Mr Ironside

Floccinaucinihilipilification

One is never too old to learn new things. The recent demise of The Book People is a great shame for it had a good catalogue of books at great prices – such as the annual Booker Prize shortlist sold as a set. Its closing sale had some great bargains.


Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is a real gem. 1500+ pages of interesting detail on words and phrases - what they mean, who said them and why…


I also bought from them A Word for Every Day by Steven Poole. Each date in the calendar is associated with a single rare or unusual word, some with encouragement to bring them back into more regular use. The date often has some historical significance for an early user of the word.


One word (16 Jan) with a nice ring is quisquilian meaning ‘worthless’. It had theological roots being used first in a 1648 pamphlet against the Catholic practice of infant baptism. Another word (6 Dec) described is floccify meaning ‘to think something is worthless’. It came initially from the Latin expression flocci facere which the Roman statesman Cicero used regularly, meaning literally ‘to value something as much as a small wisp of wool’. The same entry draws attention to the word floccinaucinihilipilification which is a sort of Latin joke for it is made up of four words which all convey the sense of little worth (flocci, nauci, nihili and pili).


Amazingly, I have seen this word used three more times in the last week. A columnist at The Times mentioned it in reference to MPs queuing up to vote on a motion about ending virtual voting. The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has attracted a lot of negative comment for insisting that MPs have to be present to vote. Interestingly, Rees-Mogg used the word floccinaucinihilipilification himself in Parliament in 2014 when describing the behaviour of EU judges during a Commons debate. It is the longest word ever recorded in Hansard.


Another journalist noted that when he was a junior reporter in the North of England he saw an experienced hack persuade a local councillor to use the word floccinaucinihilipilification in an otherwise boring council meeting. The journalist contacted some of the national papers about the councillor’s use of the word and made a few pounds from some of the articles they printed.


I looked up my new Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and it has an entry on the word, pointing out that any school student using the Eton Latin Grammar would know all the parts of the word floccinaucinihilipilification and so understand the jokey nature of its use as a description of worthlessness.


Unlike a lot of long words, this one flows easily off the tongue. I will be looking for more opportunities to use it.


What are your favourite unusual words?


Can any other words beat (or get close to) the pattern of seven alternating i’s

…i.i.i.i.i.i.i…. in the word ?

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