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Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: What does it mean?

  • 7 March 2012
  • From the section Magazine
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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.

"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.

Inan 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"

"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."