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Home / Columns / Shashi Tharoor’s Word of The Week: Floccinaucinihilipilification

Shashi Tharoor’s Word of The Week: Floccinaucinihilipilification

Lingusitics sources trace the word back to works published as long ago as 1741, in a letter by William Shenstone, who was credited by Sir Walter Scott in 1826 as the inventor of the word

columns Updated: Dec 27, 2019 17:22 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times

FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION (noun), the act of estimating something or someone as worthless.

Usage: My new book, The Paradoxical Prime Minister, is more than just a 500-page exercise in floccinaucinihilipilification.

Yes, I tweeted that, and I’ll admit it was meant to grab eyeballs and draw attention to my (then) new book. I supplied the definition, too – and no, I was not making it up. But what I was not prepared for was the rage it became, as for months afterwards, parents would trot out their little four-year-old children to recite the word to me as something they had been taught to say to sound like Shashi Tharoor. Perish the thought: when I resurrected it for that tweet, I hadn’t used it since College.

My favourite “f” word (which I won’t repeat throughout, since it uses up too much space to do so!) is a jocular coinage, apparently by pupils at Eton College, which combines a number of roughly synonymous Latin terms: floccus (“a wisp”) +‎ naucum (“a trifle”) +‎ nihilum (“nothing”) +‎ pilus (“a hair”) + -fication. Often considered the longest regular word in the English language, being one letter longer than the traditionally cited “antidisestablishmentarianism”, it has the merit of not referring to some obscure disease, the sin of “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis”, which is technically longer but impossible to use in regular conversation, since it refers to an extremely rare lung disease caused by the inhalation of ultra-fine particles. Whereas the “f” word was even used in Parliamentary debates: US Senator Jesse Helms dismissed the demise of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by declaring, “I note your distress at my floccinaucinihilipilification of the CTBT” while in the UK, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg used the word in the British House of Commons to rail against European Union judges: ““I am glad to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the requirement not to be rude about judges applies only to judges in this country. It does not apply to judges in the EU [European Union], so let me be rude about them. Let me indulge in the floccinaucinihilipilification of EU judges …”.

Lingusitics sources trace “floccinaucinihilipilification” back to works published as long ago as 1741, in a letter by William Shenstone, who was credited by Sir Walter Scott in 1826 as the inventor of the word. Others trace it to a 1758 Eton College Latin grammar book, the revised edition of a classic by sixteenth century grammarian William Lily, which listed a set of words from Latin which all meant something of little value: the first four, memorably, were flocci (trivial, a wisp), nauci (a trifle, having no value), nihili (nothing), and pili (a hair, i.e. something insignificant). The story goes that some Etonians, as a jest, put all the four together to come up with a word that signified total worthlessness. But Scott misspelled it “Floccipaucinihilipilification” (with a p as the seventh letter rather than n) and that version also persists, though the real “f” word is the one that was the longest word in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and to which I seem to have given new currency in India by using it in the sentence quoted at the head of this article.

Is the “f” word only to be used as is? Not really: there’s no reason that you can’t floccinaucinihilipilify something or someone. If something is worthy of floccinaucinihilipilification, then it is floccinaucical: trifling. It is in a state of floccinaucity. In more recent times the novelist Robert A. Heinlein called one of his female characters, who was always critical of things, a “floccinaucinihilipilificatrix.” It could be a useful word for government spokesmen to dismiss the carping of critics in the Opposition: “you can’t take them seriously; they are just floccinaucinihilipilificators.” Fortunately, however, no one has fallen into the habit of uttering the “f” word in our political discourse just yet. Maybe one day, just for the heck of it, I’ll use it in Parliament.