Word of the Week: Sesquipedalian

Sesquipedalian – Oh, the irony

‘Sesquipedalian’ certainly sounds distinctive. With its soft ‘s’ and ‘q’ sounds, it has a pleasant lull, and seems ever so distinguished.

A formal adjective, it typically refers to words, meaning ‘polysyllabic’ (having many syllables) or simply ‘long’. As a noun, it can be used to describe such a word, but its second adjectival sense has become a useful tool for attacking unnecessarily pretentious writers or works, meaning ‘characterized by long words; long-winded’ or ‘given to using long words’. Urban Dictionary (not typically the etymologist’s most useful source, but here affording a good insight into its pejorative sense) goes as far as ‘an extraordinarily large word, a word that only the pedantic use’.

Needless to say, ‘sesquipedalian’ kind of falls into its own trap – I can’t help wondering whether this contributor was describing the word, as opposed to defining it.

Its origins are equally amusing. Entering English in the mid-17th century, the adjective is derived from the Latin ‘sesquipedalis’, meaning ‘a foot and a half long’, with ‘pes’ or ‘ped’ referring to ‘foot’, and the prefix ‘sesqui’ meaning ‘one and a half times’. Horace, the famous satirical Roman poet, used the term in its current sense in his Ars Poetica, advising young poets against using ‘sesquipedalia verba’ (‘verba’ simply meaning words). Basically, keep it brief and don’t take great pains to sound ‘smart’. A good philosophy – and some of the candidates on The Apprentice might benefit from having a word with Horace.

This hyperbole saw a revival in 17th century England amongst literary critics, who found the exaggeration useful for upbraiding showy writers, which secured its entry into our language. Robert Southey, an English Romantic poet, for example, slated 16th century poet Stephen Hawes’ verses, saying they were ‘full of barbarous sesquipedalian Latinisms’ – using, as it happens, a rather sesquipedalian Latinism himself.

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