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1. sesquipedalian words are long and have many syllables

2. sesquipedalian speech or writing is characterised by the overuse of long words


noun [uncountable]

a very long word

sesquipedalianism also sesquipedality

noun [uncountable]

'Using a word like sesquipedalian is rather sesquipedalian of you.'

'Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillllantysiliogogogoch and other sesquipedalian
place names'

'the sesquipedalian prose of technical journals'

In some ways, it seems surprising that sesquipedalian is a relatively unknown adjective, since it describes a fairly straightforward concept, the idea of 'long', polysyllabic words and their use in written or spoken language. The chief reason for it not having entered general use is probably that the word itself is somewhat sesquipedalian!

the use of sesquipedalian
to refer to an individual's use of language often has overtones
that border on disapproval

This adjective is not as obscure as it might at first seem, however. A search of the Web reveals it being used in mainstream sites like amazon.com, which talks about sesquipedalian reading lists. There is even a website in development for a Sesquipedalian Society, whose aim is to unite all people who enjoy words and '… learning those words that are so powerful and yet seemingly neglected by the vast majority of people'.

The use of sesquipedalian to refer to an individual's use of language often has overtones that border on disapproval, with the idea that using long words can be a form of striving for superiority. This is illustrated by humorous attempts to reformulate well-known English expressions in a sesquipedalian way, such as 'Surveillance should precede saltation', which is better known as the familar saying 'Look before you leap'.

Background – sesquipedalian

The origins of the word sesquipedalian go right back to Roman times, when the poet Horace (65BC-8BC) coined the expression sesquipedalia verba, meaning literally 'words a foot and a half long'. It wasn't until the 19th century, however, that the term became associated with the overuse of long words in speech or writing, and only now, in the 21st century, are there signs that this word might finally emerge from obscurity.

Sesquipedalian has several derivatives associated with it, including the nouns sesquipedalianism or sesquipedality for the quality, and sesquipedalia to refer to a long word (or long words as a plural form). Sesquipedalian is also used as a countable noun to refer to an individual who enjoys and uses long words, and a recent coining by the Sesquipedalian Society is the verb sesquipedaliate.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 18th July 2003.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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