originally published April 29, 2013
I’ll admit it. There are some days when I feel like posting a photograph and saying, “Look, there’s my thousand words. I’m done.” 485 days in a row of poking into some topic or spewing out some schtick can make a guy want a break. But sometimes it’s the words themselves that keep me engaged, keep me squinting at my screen, wondering why that little huddle of ordered squiggles can carry so much meaning, so much passion.
Then there are the words that are just goofy. That’s what today is about – the words that are more notable for their own existence than for what they represent. With any luck, I’ll enjoy writing about them so much, it will feel almost like taking a break.
Though I don’t think I’m quite that lucky.
How about the longest single-syllable word in the English language? There’s some leeway here – I think with many ‘longest’, ‘largest’ or ‘most’ lists, you have to allow for a bit of creative license. This list includes a number of 10-letter words, most of which aren’t used very often. “Schnappsed” apparently means you drank schnapps, though I’ve never heard it before. I beered a little last night myself. “Scroonched” is another 10-letter way to say ‘squeezed’, though it sounds like something I’d make up when I wanted a more interesting word than ‘squeezed’. “Schwartzed” is actually a foul in a drinking game called ‘Zoom Schwartz Profigliano’, though I’m hoping before I die I can give a greater definition to that 10-letter word.
“Squirrelled” is the 11-letter British spelling of ‘squirreled’, though you have to pronounce it with an American drawl to turn it into a one-syllable word. It’s also the only word on this list which doesn’t give me a zig-zaggy red underline when I type it in Microsoft Word. The top of the list belongs to the 12-letter word “Schtroumpfed”. The Schtroumpfs are the original French name for the Smurfs, so this would be the go-to word that gets substituted for… I guess whatever in their little ‘language’. As in, “He was acting like a Schtroumpf-hole, so I Schtroumpfed him right in the Schtroumpfs.”
Wales has given us so much, from Tom Jones to Anthony Hopkins to Catherine Zeta-Jones to Roald Dahl. They have also bestowed upon our language a number of words lacking that most necessary of throat-flexers, a vowel. A crwth is a Welsh variant of the violin, pictured above. A cwtch is a hiding place. And a cwm is a deep hollow inside a mountain. In all of these cases, you can mentally substitute a long ‘u’ for the ‘w’ and pronounce it correctly. I don’t know why the Welsh hate the letter ‘u’.
You could also point out that there are a number of English words that don’t appear to have a vowel sound, like “church” or “bird” or “girl”, but I’m firmly in the camp of rhotic vowel believers. It may be hidden like camouflage within the thorny consonants, but there are vowels in there, dammit. I get testy over the most insignificant things.
On the other side of this linguistic coin you’ll find a handful of words with nothing but vowels, who break free of the shackles of perpetual consonant-hood, shirking the tradition of labio-dentals, alveolar fricatives and velar stops. Like ai, the happy-looking maned sloth. That’s a two-syllable word, so you’d probably pronounce it the way Mallory’s boyfriend Nick would say hello on Family Ties. God, I hope someone out there will remember this obscure 1980’s TV reference.
“Io” is Jupiter’s most volcano-y moon. And speaking of volcanos, “aa” is a type of lava that oozes from the ones here on Earth. You’d pronounce that with a glottal stop, like “a-a”. Almost like you’re beginning to laugh like the Count on Sesame Street, but cutting it short after two outbursts.
Some of the lesser-known consonant-free words include “Iouea” is a genus of fossil sponges, and “Euouae” is a form of musical cadence used in medieval chanting. Good luck shoehorning either of those into a conversation.
I could do (and may do, when the mood hits) an article on the longest words in the English language. The longest of the longest, the chemical name for titin, which we all know to be the world’s largest known protein, clocks in at 189,819 letters. Not a typo. It would take over three hours just to pronounce this word. Linguistic types tend to shun this one though, seeing it more as a verbal formula for the protein and not a proper word.
The largest place name in the world is a hill in New Zealand, cutely titled Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu – 85 lovely letters and a charley-horse for the tongue. Lake Webster in Massachusetts also goes by the 45-letter name Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, which means “you fish your side of the water, I fish my side of the water, nobody fishes the middle.” Up here in Canada, we don’t really have a lip-stretching conglomeration of letters to denote a place, but there is a township in Ontario that calls itself Dysart, Dudley, Harcourt, Guilford, Harburn, Bruton, Havelock, Eyre and Clyde. I guess nobody wanted to give up their stake in the name when the tiny municipalities joined together.
Lastly there are the words without rhymes. We’ve heard these before: orange, purple, film, silver, month and rhythm all show up on those little bits of Did-You-Know trivia. Except all these words actually have rhymes, they’re just a little obscure is all. Orange rhymes with ‘Blorenge’, a hill in Wales. It also rhymes with ‘door hinge’, but that takes a little more poetic liberty. Purple, while it does rhyme with ‘nurple’ when you’re feeling tweaky, also technically rhymes with ‘curple’ – the hindquarters of a horse or donkey. Or ‘hirple’ – to walk with a limp.
Can’t rhyme the word ‘film’? Try ‘pilm’, a Scottish word for dust. Or rhyme ‘films’ with ‘Wilms’, a kidney tumor. Then please send me that poem, because I’d love to see how you made that flow smoothly. Silver rhymes with ‘chilver’, a female lamb. Not very common, but it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, so shut up. Month rhymes with ‘hundred-and-oneth’, which is allegedly an accepted alternative to saying ‘hundred-and-first’. And rhythm rhymes with ‘smitham’, a fine malt or ore dust.
The beautiful thing about words is that they can fill you up with trivia you can use at your next cocktail party, provided you aren’t too particular about being invited back. As for me, I’ve got 515 days left of pounding through a thousand of these at a time, hopefully without resorting to smashing my head through a wall.
Then, if I’m lucky, I get a break.