Sesquipedalian is defined as the use of words that are overly long and have multiple syllables. Sometimes, they are neologisms.
Sesquipedalian words are multisyllabic, excessively long, and are often used together when much shorter words and fewer of them would’ve been sufficient. When someone speaks or writes in this way it’s known as the sesquipedalian style. One of the best ways that someone can create a sesquipedalian word is to add prefixes and suffixes onto a root. For example, the very real word “antidisestablishmentarianism” refers to the position advocating that a state church should continue to receive government patronage. This position is against that being “disestablished.”
Definition and Explanation of Sesquipedalian
When writers use the sesquipedalian style, they are taking a risk that readers are going to be turned off by their word choices. Depending on how extreme they go, this might be a real risk. Or, if it’s pushed even farther, become humorous. Sesquipedalian writing can include words that are outrageously long, ones that the reader has never encountered before, and so many complex words together that it’s difficult to work out the meaning of a passage. This is certainly the case if words like “antidisestablishmentarianism” are used in tandem with other words packed full of prefixes and suffixes.
Sometimes, sesquipedalian words are those that the writer has made up. These are created for a particular scenario. Sometimes to evoke humor or make the scene feel absurd and strange. There are numerous examples of this technique being used in literature aimed at adults and at children.
Examples of Sesquipedalian Words in Literature
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Without a doubt, Joyce has some of the best examples of the sesquipedalian writing style in his work. Finnegans Wake is a novel that’s regarded for its experimental style and has a reputation as one of the most difficult books in the English language. It is one part a collection of fables and another part an analysis/deconstruction. The book is written in the idiosyncratic language. There are neologisms, nonce words, and of course, examples of sesquipedalian writing. He used words that are up to 100 letters long. Here is a famous excerpt from the novel:
The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur — nuk!) of a once wallstraitoldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan … one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-linsfirst loved livvy.
Supposedly, the first line in this passage: “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur — nuk!” Is meant to represent the thunderclap connected to the fall of Adam and Eve. Joyce used this effect, some scholars believe, to create the feeling of sleep/dreams. This is also seen through his use of stream of consciousness and allusions. The passage goes on to use the following line: “BrékkekKékkekKékkekKékkek! KóaxKóaxKóax! UaluUaluUalu! Quaouauh.”
Read poetry by James Joyce.
Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare
In this work, William Shakespeare uses a strange twenty-seven letter word. Read the passage below to see how the word fits into the content of the poem:
Costard: O! they have lived long on the alms basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon […]
Here, the word “honorificabilitudinitatibus” is used as a plural of the medieval Latin word “honorificabilitudinitas.” It refers to the state of being able to “achieve honors” and is an hapax legomenon within Shakespeare’s works, meaning that it occurs only once in the canon of the author. It is also the second-longest word in the English language that features alternating consonants and vowels.
Headlong Hall by Thomas Love Peacock
Headlong Hall is a novella published in 1816 by Thomas Love Peacock. It was his first long work of fiction. In it, he describes a group of eccentrics every one of which has a single overwhelming obsession. He creates a social satire among the group. The work is famous for his use of two neologisms, or specific words that he coined. They are:
They both refer to the structure of the body, created through the combination of classical Latin and Greek terms.
Why Do Writers Use Sesquipedalian Words?
Writers use sesquipedalian words in order to emphasize something absurd, create a new humorous satire-based word, express a character’s personality, challenge the reader, among other reasons. It’s easy to see how this technique, such as in the examples above, can be used seriously or humorously. If a writer’s character uses numerous sesquipedalian words every time they speak, the reader is going to start making assumptions about them. Perhaps they’re trying to sound smart, trying to make someone laugh, or trying to make some point about other people who use this kind of language. In other examples, such as in Love’s Labour’s Lost, a single sesquipedalian word may be used, creating an entirely different effect. The reader is asked to slow down, consider the words being used, and perhaps break them down into smaller parts, such as prefixes and suffixes, to understand them.
Related Literary Terms
- Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral, or ungraspable.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Archaism: a figure of speech in which a writer’s choice of word or phrase is purposefully old-fashioned.
- Euphony: a literary device that refers to the musical, or pleasing, qualities of words.
- Kenning: a figure of speech in which two words are combined to form a new expression.
- Malapropism: occurs when a writer, character, or other source uses a word incorrectly, usually rendering the sentence nonsensical.