Virtual Musotopianoforte

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious ... I think

Just for the record, I spelled the word in the title on my own attempt, and not with the assistance of the response stimulus article. I made only one mistake - one letter.

Last week was a good and bad week for Julie Andrews, the lady noted for her classic roles as "Maria" in The Sound of Music and "Mary Poppins" in the film of the same name. She was given the Screen Actors Guild's Lifetime Achievement Award and it was only days later that the word she popularised in Mary Poppins came back to haunt her: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

As a compulsive human spell-checker, I know how important literacy is, especially spelling: it's a mark of a literate person and vital for maximising your chances of good communication with minimal comprehension issues at the receiving end. I established such a reputation that even my senior English teacher in high school used to check with me as to whether she was spelling certain words correctly or not :). But the point of discussion in this post is not about me. Neverthless, with my satisfactory background in linguistics, I think I'm within the sphere of authority to defend Ms Andrews on this particular issue.

The word in question (supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) can be used in two contexts: (1) A synonym for "fantastic" or "wonderful" ( a nonsense word meaning fantastic), and (2) An expression of approval ( used as a nonsense word by children to express approval).

I have not heard the word being used in either way and I think the main reason, apart from it being deemed as "nonsensical", is because most people are too lazy to use a number of syllables that is enough to make one sentence for just one word. Children nowadays are also expressing their approval in more concise ways: "cool", "wicked", "fully sick" (strange, but true). We are now living in a world where telecommunications is booming, people are rushing home in peak hour and using minimal letters, let alone words, to convey messages to others. There is increasing apathy towards the fate of our language, particularly in written form.

The reality is that "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" isn't a commonly used word in the English lexicon; it is seldom used in day-to-day conversation. The only time I ever use the word is when I'm singing the song while listening to it, not even a capella. In fact, the word was originally written in 1949 in a song by Parker and Young where it was spelled "supercalafajalistickespialadojus". While that may seem irrelevant, I find that this original word, despite having fewer letters, is more difficult to spell (upon hearing) as it comes across as more 'European' to me. Long words don't necessarily have to be hard to spell as is proven in "pseudoantidisestablishmentarianism" (means "false opposition to the withdrawal of state support from a Church"), which has the same number of letters as "supercalifragilisticexplialidocious" yet its constituents are mainly affixes. Words like "Mediterranean" and "liaison" (words I have spelled wrong in the past and since learned from) are substantially smaller yet still fairly tricky to spell for many people.

Whilst it is a bit of a disappointment that Ms Andrews did not correctly spell "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", the judge of her literacy should come after being able to spell words more relevant words and more comprehensive testing.

N.B. In this post, every time the word in question is mentioned, I wrote it out in full (after learning the correct spelling). Please comment so that I know that my time has been spent doing something even remotely worthwhile!!

Response Stimulus: