Atoning for educability

These silly words …

See this update

The other day in one of my arbitrary but not random wanderings on the web, I came across a medley of Mary Poppins songs in Italian sung by the Quartetto Cetra. The very first song is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and I was struck by their “translation” of it: “Supercalifragilistichespiralidoso,” which it turns out is the way that Walt Disney’s translators translated it. Disney and others typically commission translations for dubbed versions of their movies. Lee used to watch dubbed versions of musicals from the in-flight systems, back when we could fly, and was generally impressed with the songs. I’ve put links to the various versions of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” that I’ll be talking about in a table below.

It also turns out that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is more interesting than I thought. Here are a couple fun facts: the word wasn’t invented by the composers, the Sherman brothers, but had been around for 30 years or so before they wrote the song. There was even another song several years earlier that used supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

While that’s all well and good and fun, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and look at the linguistics of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and some of its translations, since that’s what got me started on this in the first place. This is a combination of descriptive linguistics, an area I know well, and descriptive translation studies, an area which I found out about relatively recently.

The Wikipedia article gives an analysis of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious by Richard Lederer, one which I suspect is slightly tongue in cheek:


super  + cali  + fragilistic  + expiali  + docious
above  + beauty  + delicate  + to atone  + educable

“Atoning for educability through delicate beauty.”


There are two things missing from that analysis. One is that it is not broken down into its smallest pieces (morphemes) as we did for bisarcipoltroncionacciosissimo. Will Leben (who is a fabulous cook in addition to his linguistic expertise) says “It’s as if he had been asked what went into a lasagna, and among the ingredients he named tomato sauce, but without naming what went into the sauce.” So here are the missing ingredients:

  • fragilistic = fragile-ist-ic
  • docious = doc-ious

The other thing that is missing is the analysis of how the pieces go together, and what the corresponding parts of speech are. I’m going to focus on just a couple bits that are the key to most of the variation in the translations. The first thing is that we can analyze supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as two adjectives stuck together:

supercalifragilistic + expialidocious

Even though supercalifragilistic itself consists of multiple adjectives (fragil(e) and then fragilistic), I’m going to set that aside. You might wonder why we can say we have two main adjectives. There are two pieces of (weak) evidence. One is the intonation in the song: there is a slight break between those two pieces (though there isn’t a break when the characters say it in speech). The other piece of evidence is that supercalifragilistic has come be to used on its own as a separate word. Neither of those two things is conclusive, but they are suggestive. They are also key aspects in the translations. (When I asked Will for other examples of two adjectives stuck together, he said Franco-American, as in SpaghettiOs. Funny how he never made those for us at one of his wonderful brunches…)

After I shared that paragraph with Will, he, not unsurprisingly, came up with a third piece of evidence for the two pieces. It turns out that -istic has a very limited distribution. In particular, Will says “-istic is either word final or is followed by -s (linguistics), -al (statistical(ly), or combining element -o- (cabbalistico-) based on looking through half the 1100 entries in the OED in *istic​*.” In other words, since the first -istic of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious isn’t followed by -s-al, or -o-, it must be at the end of a word, which is supercalifragilistic. It also means that Will looked at over well over 500 words in order to contribute to this blog post. Now that is really going above and beyond. Thanks, Will!

OK, let’s look at the translations. All of the translations of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious into languages that I know (somewhat) use suffixes for the whole word that indicate an adjective. All the Romance languages in this group (French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese) use the equivalent of -ous, which comes from Latin in any case, as in the Italian ending -oso.

The other main adjective component, supercalifragilistic, is more complicated. Spanish is the easiest, so let’s look at it first:


The first part, supercalifragilistico–  looks just like a regular adjective in Spanish, ending in -ico. Now, when you listen to the song, sometimes the -o gets elided, so that it sounds like supercalifragilistic. Italian takes one step backwards, and keeps the -ic pronunciation, using the Italian spelling for it (-ich with the h since the following letter is e), but it omits the –o completely.


By omitting the –o, the Italian version doesn’t look like a combination of two adjectives, since the first part would have to end in –o, like Spanish (as in franco-americano). French and Portuguese go a step further: they keep the -ic pronunciation and the -ic spelling.

French: supercalifragilisticexpidélilicieux

Portuguese: supercalifragilisticexpialidoce

The problem is that in both French and Portuguese, a c followed by an e is pronounced [s], just as in English. To be orthographically correct, the French should have been supercalifragilistiquexpidélilicieux, which would also make it sort-of look like two adjectives, as in English and Spanish. In Portuguese, it would have had to use a qu: supercalifragilistiquexpialidoce, but this does not look like an adjective (which would end in -co, like Spanish and Italian). Finally, the German version also doesn’t follow the normal spelling rules. It should have used a -k to indicate the -ic pronunciation, but it keeps the English -c, making it not look like anything: to be an adjective it should have ended in -isch, as the whole word does.


To sum up, in English supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is probably two adjectives stuck together (a compound). Spanish follows that model, making both pieces look like Spanish. The other languages don’t make the first part, supercalifragilistic, look like a native adjective, and only Italian uses the correct spelling for the word as it is pronounced. One interesting thing about German is that although the official translation doesn’t look like two adjectives, an alternative translation does, just not stuck together.

superkalifragilistisch expiallegorisch

It’s fascinating what strategies the translators in the different languages used to translate a nonsense word which still seems to have some structure. Of course, translators have to do this fairly often, most famously perhaps for the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. That Wikipedia article even has a section about translations. Now if they would just expand the entry for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” …


Translations of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Language Word + Wikipedia link Song link
English supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
French supercalifragilisticexpidélilicieux
German supercalifragilisticexpialigetisch
Italian supercalifragilistichespiralidoso
Spanish supercalifragilisticoexpialidoso
Portuguese supercalifragilisticexpialidoce