The Grammarphobia Blog

A foot-and-a-half-long hot dog

Q: What is a word that means the use of long, rather obscure words? Not “pleonasm,” which means using more words than necessary; and not “lexiphanic,” which means using pretentious words (although that comes close).

A: I think the word you want is “sesquipedalian,” which literally means “a foot and a half long,” from the Latin words sesqui (one and a half) and pes (foot). Now, in words of few syllables (I hope), a little history.

We have the Roman poet Horace to thank for this word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In his Ars Poetica, Horace used the Latin word sesquipedalia (foot and a half long) to describe highfalutin words.

The first English citation for this usage is in a 1656 dictionary of obscure words: “Sesquipedalian words (verba sesquipedalia) used by Horace for great, stout, and lofty words; words that are very long, consisting of many Syllables.”

A shorter version, “sesquipedal,” entered English in 1611, and originally referred to size only, with no reference to words. But in 1624 Robert Burton remarked in his Anatomy of Melancholy on “Fustian, big, sesquipedal words.”

Meanwhile, “sesquipedalian” also had to do with simple measurement when it first appeared in 1615, according to the OED, originally referring only to “a person or thing that is a foot and a half in height or length.”

Both “sesquipedalian” and “sesquipedal” have survived to the present day, but the two words have different meanings now.

These days, “sesquipedalian” refers to long and ponderous words, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), while “sesquipedal” means merely a foot and a half long.

So, a “sesqipedal” hot dog” would be an example of a “sesquipedalian” usage.

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