Sunday, 9 November 2008


While "Chim Chim Cher-ee" may have won the Oscar for Best Song for Walt Disney's movie Mary Poppins, the best known song may well be "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." The song was written by the Sherman Brothers (who also wrote for Disney's The Jungle Book). Given Mary Poppins is set in the pre-war Edwardian Era (1910, to be exact), the song was made to sound like music hall songs from that time period.

Much of the reason for the song's fame may well be its exceptionally long title, an unusual word that, according to the movie means, "what you say when you don't know what to say." The word never appears in any of P. L. Travers books about Mary Poppins, which begs the question of where it came from. According to one story told by Richard M. Sherman, he and his brother wrote the song in two weeks, depending largely on double talk for the coinage of the word. At the same time, however, the Sherman Brothers have also said that it was coined in 1918 as supercadjaflawjalisticespealedojus,and they picked it up at summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains in the Thirties. That having been said, it seems possible that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious does indeed have a meaning and that it could be derived from its various components.

The Sherman Brothers having learned it in summer camp seems possible. A possible relative of the word appears in the 1942 horror movie The Undying Monster. There a male character says of a female character, "She has an over active supercalifragilis." He defines the words "supercalifragilis" as "female intuition." Another clue that the word may have been coined long before the movie Mary Poppins was in the works is a lawsuit that was brought by Life Music, Inc. against Disney's music publisher, Wonderland Music, in 1965, alleging that the song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was plagiarised from a 1951 song by Gloria Parker and Barney Young entitled "Supercalafajaistickespeealadojus." The song was recorded by Alan Holmes for Columbia Records. Parker and Young even claimed to have shown the song to Disney as early as 1951. While Life Music would seem to have had a good case, they ultimately lost the suit. Disney had affidavits from Stanley Eichenbaum and Clara Colclaster of New York, who testified that "...variants of the word were known to and used by them many years prior to 1949." Despite all of this, there appears to be no documentation that any form of the word existed prior to Parker and Young's song. This puts theorising the origins of the word prior to 1951 seriously in doubt.

While the Sherman Brothers have said that they coined it out of double talk or learned it at summer camp (and Parker and Young claimed they stole it from them), it seems possible that the various components of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious are based on actual words. And if they are, then supercalifragilisticexpialidocious could mean more than "...what you say when you don't know what to say." Indeed, the very first component of the word, super-, is a common prefix in English. It is derived from Latin super, "over, above," and is applied to things that are superior in amount, degree, or size, and things that exceed some norm. The next component, cali-, is a bit more difficult. It could be related to the words calorie and caudle, which are derived from Latin calor, "heat," and related words. That having been said, it could also be related to calli-, the prefix from the word calligraphy which derives from Greek kallos, "beauty."

The next component of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, fragilistic, could possibly be related to the word fragile. The word fragile derives ultimately from Latin "to break," hence it could mean "fragile," "breakable," or "delicate." The next few components of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious are a bit more difficult, although it would seem that they are multiple words. Expiali- could ultimately derive from Latin expiatio "atonement" and related to such Latin words as piabilis, "able to be atoned for." Docius could be derived from Latin doceo, "to learn, to instruct." In modern English our words doctor and dogma are related to this Latin word.

Combining these components, we may be able to come up with a meaning for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious other than "what you say when you don't know what to say" or even "wonderful, excellent." If we take cali- to mean "heat" or "warmth," supercalifragilisticexpialidocious could mean "atoning for instruction by fragile warmth" It must be pointed out that in some ways this describes Mary Poppins herself. In the song "The Perfect Nanny," in which the children read the advertisement for a nanny they have written, they say they want someone with "...a cheery disposition/Rosy cheeks..." People with cheery dispositions are generally described as "warm" in English, while rosy cheeks are often seen a sign of warmth. Even if we take calli- to mean "beauty," it does not change the definition terribly much. It would then mean "atoning for instruction by fragile beauty." "The Perfect Nanny" also asks for someone who is "...fairly pretty." Given she was played by Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins can be viewed as "fairly pretty," even beautiful. Again, the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious would describe Mary herself.

"Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is certainly the longest song title of any song with a one word title. It is questionable whether it is actually the longest word in the English language. There are certainly both chemical and medical terms longer than its 34 letters, as well as place names. It could well be the longest word in common usage. While most dictionaries neglect to include the word and when they do it is only as a title of a song, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is used by everyday people, albeit not often. But then the same can be said of antidisestablishmentarianism, which only has 29 letters as compared to the 34 letters of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Regardless, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" will remain remembered as a song, regardless of whether the word is simply a nonsense word or isn't the longest word in common usage in the English language. The song has remained consistently popular over the years. The Chipmunks, Harry Connick, Jr, The Vandals, and Mindless Self Indulgence have covered it. Les Poppys recorded a French version of the song. And the song remains a perennial in collections of the greatest hits from Disney's movies over the years. It points to one of the reasons that the movie Mary Poppins has remained a classic over the years. Of the many movies the studio has released over the years, Mary Poppins has one of the best scores, and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" remains one of the best songs.

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