Getting my exercise

While trying to see the forest and the trees …

Last time I talked about supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: its linguistic analysis and some of its translations. One of the things I pointed out about the translations is that the spelling doesn’t always indicate the pronunciation of the final c of fragilistic as [k]. Not surprisingly, Will Leben once again is keeping me on my toes, by pointing out, absolutely correctly, that the English version doesn’t either: c before e is usually pronounced [s] (except, as Will notes in chic-est). Forty lashes with a wet noodle for me, as my mother would have said, for not seeing the forest for the trees.

Of course, English spelling is notoriously messy. French is the only language I know which can give English a run for its money in the awful orthography department. Now it turns out that there are some alternate spellings for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, dating to the period before Mary Poppins, which had the effect of codifying the spelling the Sherman brothers used. Here are the spellings from the Wikipedia article:


Date Spelling Note
1931 supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus first attestation via the OED
1930s super-cadja-flawjalistic-espealedojus Sherman brothers’ recollection in 1998
1949 Supercalafajalistickespialadojus different song
1951 Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus the same different song 2 years later
1964 Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Mary Poppins movie


Of the 4 previous spellings, 3 of them indicate the actual pronunciation, either by using a hyphen to separate the pieces (the Sherman brothers’ recollection of the 1930s) or by using ck for the spelling, which is pronounced as [k]. I suspect that even though the Sherman brothers remembered the s-word with hyphens, it suited them to write it without hyphens, since the lyrics make a big deal about it being a wonderful word: using  hyphens would distract from that idea.

Of course, the s-word isn’t the only place English has an issue with the pronunciation of c. For example, we might call this post and the previous one linguistic-y or linguisticky or less probably linguisticy. The problem, as with the s-word is that c followed by y is pronounced as [s]. Interestingly, Wiktionary actually gives an entry for linguistickyLee and I would both use linguistic-y in spoken speech, but Lee would avoid it in writing. I would write it, as I just did, with the hyphen, since that preserves the adjectival “look” of linguistic, which the ck version doesn’t, at least for me.

We can summarize the different versions of the s-word along the two dimensions of whether the spelling reflects the pronunciation and whether the fragilistic portion has the look of an adjective as here:


Language s-word [k] spelling adjective-like
English Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious No Yes
English supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus No Yes
English super-cadja-flawjalistic-espealedojus Yes Yes
English Supercalafajalistickespialadojus Yes No
English Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus Yes No
French supercalifragilisticexpidélilicieux No No
German supercalifragilisticexpialigetisch No No
German superkalifragilistisch expiallegorisch No Yes
Italian supercalifragilistichespiralidoso Yes No
Spanish supercalifragilisticoexpialidoso Yes Yes
Portuguese supercalifragilisticexpialidoce No No


In the previous post I commented that it was interesting to see how translators coped with the complexities of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Here we can see that native speakers have some of the same issues.

Thanks again, Will, for getting me my exercise!

Technical note

Will pointed out another aspect of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, namely that we insert a glottal stop between fragilistic and expialidocious.

Will goes on to say that the glottal stop is

not required in lexicalized compounds (“weekend”) but is normal in actively produced ones “stick end”). We also don’t need glottal stop in phrases (“static electricity”).

What that suggests is that the s-word is neither a phrase, nor a lexicalized compound, but it could be an actively produced compound. That fits with the origin of s-word as a novel word in the early 20th century, but since the s-word would seem to be lexicalized by now, it’s a puzzle. But still fun.