Alas, among the many hundreds of phrases coined by William Shakespeare, “throwing shade” is not one of them. But while the bard may not have invented the epic burn, he certainly lifted the art of insult comedy to new heights. Forsooth: Among the most searing Shakespearean insults worth working into your daily vocabulary are scorchers like, “the tartness of his face sours ripe grapes,” “I’d beat thee, but I should infect my hands,” and “I desire that we be better strangers.”
Given Shakespeare’s talent for elevating the low blow to high art, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the longest word he ever used in writing— a 27-letter Latin juggernaut— shows up as the punchline to an insult. You can find it in act V, scene I of the comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. A bumpkin named Costard and a servant named Moth have just overheard two pompous scholars showing off their dubious Latin educations to one another. “They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps,” Moth mutters to Costard. His friend responds:
“O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words.
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, act V, scene I)
Tatiana Ayazo /Rd.com, Shutterstock
There’s plenty we could dig into here—like how “flap-dragon” was a bonkers middle ages parlor game where bored folks took turns plucking hot raisins out of a dish of burning brandy and then eating them (podcasts hadn’t been invented yet) — but let’s focus on the honorificabilitudinitatibus in the room.
How do you pronounce this freak of language? (Like this.) And what does it even mean? In the context above, it’s an intentionally long Latin formation that means “the state of being able to achieve honor” — or, in a word, honorable. Shakespeare didn’t invent it; written evidence of the absurdly long word goes back to the 9th century (600 years before Love’s Labour’s), and probably landed in Shakespeare’s hands in a book of Greek and Latin proverbs called Adagia. By then it had already taken on a reputation as a joke word—a parody of itself and the sort of wannabe-scholar who might use ridiculously long Latin phrases to demonstrate his wit. The joke persisted at least until 1858, when Charles Dickens included it in an essay on bad scientific writing. Today, you’re most likely to see it on fun fact blogs pointing out that it’s the longest English word made entirely of alternating consonants and vowels. (A small distinction when you consider that the longest word in English takes three hours to pronounce.)
So basically, the longest word Shakespeare ever used is a joke about jerks who use long words. But is there a deeper meaning scrambled into the 27 letters of this Latin behemoth? If you’re a conspiracy theorist who thinks Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre was secretly written by Sir Francis Bacon, then yes! Baconian truthers point out that the letters of “honorificabilitudinitatibus” can be perfectly rearranged to reveal the Latin phrase, “hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi,” which translates to “these plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world.”
That’s pretty steamy evidence… of course, you can also rearrange the same letters to spell, “Hi, idiot. I bib a unicorn flautist,” and yet the Shakespearean unicorn-baby-flautist truther lobby remains silent on the matter.
Now that that’s sorted out you should have no problem guessing which English word has more than 645 meanings. Hint: it’s only three letter long.