Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: What does it mean?

 
Scene from Mary Poppins

Robert B Sherman, half of the famous songwriting duo behind a string of Disney musical hits, has died. One of his most famous co-creations was the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. What's the story behind it?

As every child knows, if you say the word loudly enough, you'll always sound precocious.

Few neologisms have become so ingrained in the language and elicit such affection.

It was introduced into the Mary Poppins story by American composers Robert and Richard Sherman when they adapted the PL Travers book for the big screen.

In the 1964 musical film, starring Julie Andrews, the nanny with magical powers wins an unorthodox race - on merry-go-round horses - and is surrounded by reporters who say she must be lost for words.

"On the contrary, there's a very good word," she replies, before bursting into song.

The Shermans' songbook

Bob Sherman (left) with brother Richard and Walt Disney
  • Mary Poppins
  • Jungle Book
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • The Aristocats
  • It's a Small World (After All) - song from Disney theme park (pictured above with Walt Disney)

"It's something to say when you don't know what to say," says one of the two children, Jane. So in the film, the word has no meaning, although it acts as a powerful keepsake from the children's magical adventure.

In an interview with a website in Los Angeles, Richard Sherman once said it was a word constructed in the same way he and his brother used to make up words in their childhood.

"We used to make up the big double-talk words, we could make a big obnoxious word up for the kids and that's where it started.

"'Obnoxious' is an ugly word so we said 'atrocious', that's very British.

"We started with 'atrocious' and then you can sound smart and be precocious.

"We had 'precocious' and 'atrocious' and we wanted something super-colossal and that's corny, so we took 'super' and did double-talk to get 'califragilistic' which means nothing, it just came out that way.

"That's in a nutshell what we did over two weeks."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has now come to mean an expression of excited approval.

But it says there was an earlier form of the word, supercalafajalistickespialadojus, first documented in a song in 1949.

OED dictionary

The song's writers were unsuccessful in taking legal action for alleged copyright infringement against the company that published the Disney song.

Whatever the true origins - and the Shermans always maintained they were unaware of the other song - they popularised the word which, nearly 50 years on, does not seem to have lost its magic.

Fans of Scottish football club Celtic will not want reminding that one of the most memorable newspaper headlines in recent years was coined after lowly Inverness Caledonian went to the fortress of Parkhead and beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup in 2000.

The Sun's back page said: "Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious"

Start Quote

It makes language exciting, it makes words fun”

End Quote Matt Wolf Theatre critic

"For me it's all about rhythm," says lexicographer Susie Dent. "Although the word has developed a semi-independent life of its own, it is hard not to hear the song in your head as you recite it, and 'recite' seems to be the better word than 'say'.

"It is unwieldy in its length, yes, but it is also beautifully crafted in its beat so that once you learn it, it is hard to forget.

"Its cheerful child-like nonsensicality - a much clumsier word - reflects rather wonderfully the idea of the fantastic and fabulous."

Matt Wolf, a theatre critic at the International Herald Tribune, says it's a very good song to choreograph because of all the syllables.

"There's something about the polysyllabic nature of it that makes you want to move to it. It makes language exciting, it makes words fun.

"This is one of the most hummable of all tunes. Even though it rhymes with 'something quite atrocious', it's called out with so much giddiness and joy that it leaves you feeling good.

The absurdity brings to mind Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky, he says.

"It's rather euphonious. It trips off the tongue. It's a cunningly conceived run-on word."

 

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  • rate this
    +19

    Comment number 69.

    64.by_heck

    If you don't get the meaning of the word, and what it is trying to convey then it is truly lost on you.

    In a time of recession with hard cuts and difficult times for a lot of people, something like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is even more important than ever.
    Sometimes allowing yourself to think about things that actually don't matter help you face the things that do.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 68.

    Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious is the name of double Olympic Gold Medalist Rodney Pattissons Flying Dutchman sailing dinghy, currently on display in the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.
    Actually that's not quite true . . .the titles licensee told him to change the name because it infringed copyright. He did, changing just 1 letter, although I'm not sure which one ;-)

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 65.

    The late, lamented Frank Muir came up with this aide-memoire before going off on a shopping trip :
    He needed something for lunch; something to go with left-over cheese ; several bits of chilled stuff ; something to keep his socks up ; ingredients for an omelette, and something to cope with his bad breath . . .
    So . . .
    Soup, a cauli ; fridge, elastic ; eggs, peas, halitosis.
    Genius.

  • rate this
    +18

    Comment number 41.

    The word summed up society then.... a society where children could be children and there was no race to grow up asap. A period when there was still a great feeling of British-ness and a time when petrol was about 25p a gallon or less than 6p a litre, lol.

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 28.

    Fantastic news report, best one I've read for a while.
    It is a shame this is coming out following the death of Robert Sherman, a man whom contributed so much to the world as we know it and the film industry.
    It is an unbelievibly silly word that never struggles to put smiles on the faces of adults and children world wide. Also is a popular convosation starter.

 

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