Floccinaucinihilipilification and the Eton Latin Grammar

One of the words in contention for the longest word in the English language is floccinaucinihilipilification. It is pronounced flahk-si-naw-si-ni-hi-li-pi-li-fi-kay-shên. Words like floccinaucinihilipilification support my idea that words don’t just develop as tools to describe what is around us. Instead people love to use words to play with language—we celebrate the exuberance of words and use them not just to give meaning but for fun.

History of floccinaucinihilipilification

Floccinaucinihilipilification, unlike a lot of other “novelty” words, is well-established, having first been written down in 1741. The oft-quoted, standard meaning is the action or habit of estimating something as worthless. It has a wonderful derivation, being a combination of four Latin words flocci, nauci, nihili, pilifi. They all have the similar meaning of “at a small price” or “for nothing” which they were listed together in the Eton Latin Grammar.

The Eton Latin Grammar

The Eton Latin Grammar was the standard Latin textbook for English schoolboys (and any schoolgirls lucky enough to be granted an education) in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an update of Lily’s Latin Grammar, a combination of three early 16th-century booklets by William Lily (1469-1522). Lily’s Latin Grammar was endorsed by all the English monarchs of its time, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, with Edward VI making it the standard Latin textbook used in English schools.

Shakespeare makes quite a few references to Lily’s Grammar. He has Roman characters in Titus Andronicus (Act IV Scene 2) referring to a quote directly from it:

Demetrius: What’s here? a scroll, and written round about. Let’s see.
Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,
Non eget Mauri jaculis, nec arcu.
Chiron: O, ‘tis a verse in Horace, I know it well,
I read it in the grammar long ago.
Aaron: Ay, just – a verse in Horace, right, you have it.

One author refers to this quite harshly … “as the most egregious anachronism in Shakespeare” going on to point out … “What could be more absurd than characters in a Roman play recollecting their childhood study of Lily’s Latin Grammar?” This overlooks  Shakespeare’s sophisticated relationship with his audience.

Lily’s Grammar underwent a major revision to become The Eton Latin Grammar in the 18th century. It was rote-learned by every public schoolboy in England. The Online Etymological Dictionary suggests that because of this widespread common use, floccinaucinihilipilification was “the kind of jocular formation that was possible among educated men in Britain”.

Meaning of floccinaucinihilipilification

Each of the five elements of floccinaucinihilipilification have a particular meaning: flocci means a tuft of wool; the meaning of nauci is vague but one strong explanation is “that which is inside an olive or a nut” (the pit); nihil means nothing; and pili means a hair. The ending –fication derives from Latin facio ‘make’. So the true meaning of the word is the action of making something as worthless as a tuft of wool, an olive pip, a strand of hair or of nothing at all.

Thank goodness we have coined words like floccinaucinihilipilification. We could consider it an act of antifloccinaucinihilipilification—that is, resisting the action of making something as worthless as a tuft of wool, an olive pip, a strand of hair or of nothing at all.