Hundreds of years ago—so the story goes—a group of Latin students at Eton College in England was verbally playing one evening with some of the terms learned in class. After deriving some English words from their Latin origin and combining them in the genitive case (that is to say, in the possessive), they came up with an authentic jawbreaker: floccinaucinihilipilification.
What these students certainly did not imagine was that this homework-like play would eventually become an entry in English dictionaries (and, understandably, be considered one of the longest coined nontechnical words in the English language). While it is not very likely that we should find such overstated concoctions in an everyday student dictionary, it’s a word that appears in unabridged editions, though its usage is not—as anyone can imagine—among the top choices of anyone writing or speaking in either old or contemporary English.
But what does floccinaucinihilipilification mean? Well, let’s see: flocci: comes from floccus, which literally is “a tuft of wool,” but figuratively, “trifle”; nauci: from naucum, which also means “trifle”; nihili: from nihilum, means “nothing,” from which we get words such as nihilism and annihilate; pili: from pilus, which literally means “a single hair,” and figuratively, “trifle”; and fication: a suffix of action nouns, especially used in the case of verbs ending in fy.1
So, as we can see, the word is formed by roughly synonymous Latin stems meaning “trifle,” or outright “nothing”; in fact, a common definition for floccinaucihilipilification states that “it refers to the act of belittling someone or something, expressing the opinion that he, she, or it is of little or no value.”2
Some word-minded souls still remember when in 1995 President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, stated: “As a practical matter of estimating the economy, the difference is not great. There is a little bit of floccinaucinihilipilification going on here,”3 posing himself as a real scholar and leaving most of his audience at a loss as to what he really meant.
That being the case, it’s sadly ironic that one of the longest words in the English language has a meaning that reduces, so to say, the value and worth of the person, object, or concept referred to by the term. Too many syllables, too many characters, just to say: “What you’re saying is not important” or even “You are not important.”
I cannot help marveling when I contrast this unending logorrhea with Jesus’ simple but fully meaningful statements and commands. I still remember some of the few words many of us will ever learn in Jesus’ mother tongue: “Talitha, cumi,” Jesus said, and a dead girl came to life. (As a child I used to scratch my head wondering, How could it be that just two words in Aramaic could stand for our longer “Little girl, I say to you, arise” [Mark 5:41, NKJV]?).4
So it is always with Jesus. Generally His most powerful statements lack any verbosity, but they surely leave an indelible impression. “Come, follow Me”; “It is finished”; “I will come again”—these are not expressions to trifle with. You may believe in them or not, but you cannot ignore them. It’s impossible to belittle them. No floccinaucinihilipilification here. And as usual, there He stays in silence, waiting for our most humble and grateful response to every one of His statements and promises: “Yes, I will follow You”; “Eternal thanks for Your sacrifice”; “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
1 Norman W. Schur, A Dictionary of Challenging Words (London: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 184.
4 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Marcos Paseggi is a professional translator, enthusiastic writer, and biblical researcher writing from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. This article was published March 17, 2011.