THE BIGGEST HOAX
by Chris Cole
Word Ways, 1989
The biggest (i.e., longest) word that appears in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries and the Oxford English Dictionary is the 45-letter PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOL-CANOCONIOSIS. It now appears that this word occurs due to a hoax perpetrated by members of the National Puzzlers' League. If true, this is surely one of the greatest ironies in the history of logology.
As long-time readers of Word Ways know [May 1985, pp. 95-96; November 1986, pp. 205-206; May 1987, p. 82], the first citation to p45 in the OED Supplement is incorrect in two ways. The citation reads:
1936 F. Scully "Bedside Manna" 87
Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis [sic], a disease caused by ultra-microscopic particles of sandy volcanic dust, might even give him laryngitis.
The first error is that in the actual book Bedside Manna p45 is spelled without the C in -SCOPIC-. The second error is that this is not the first time p45 occurred in print. Its first citation was in an article in the New York Herald Tribune dated February 23, 1935. Eric Albert kindly supplied me with a copy:
PUZZLERS OPEN 103RD SESSION HERE
BY RECOGNIZING 45-LETTER WORD
Gains Approval of Brain Teasers' League as
Alphagrams, Charades, Pyramids Run Riot
Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis succeeded electrophotomicrographically as the longest word in the English language recognized by the National Puzzlers' League at the opening session of the organization's 103d semi-annual meeting held yesterday at the Hotel New Yorker. The puzzlers explained that the forty-five-letter word is the name of a special form of silicosis caused by ultra-microscopic particles of silica volcanic dust...
According to long-time NPL member David Shulman, p45 was used by Everett M. Smith, president of the NPL and news editor of the Christian Science Monitor. Smith edited a puzzle column and was one of the more brilliant members at that time. It is possible that he gave the word as an example of medical "word inflation". This inflation has recently led to such monstrosities as the 207,000+ letter name of human mitochondrial DNA mentioned in Guinness.
However, it appears that Smith did not cite the word, he coined it. Searches of the medical literature prior to 1935 have failed to reveal any use of p45. If this is true, and readers are invited to provide evidence to the contrary, then this is a rich irony. P45 is a word by, of and for logologists!
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