Sesquipedal icon Sesquipedal

Sesquipedal icon
sesquipedal Also sesquipedalian. noun A long word adj 1. Long and ponderous; polysyllabic 2. Given to using long words [From Latin sesquipedalis, of a foot and a half in length]1

"Well," said Owl, "the customary procedure in such cases is as follows."

"What does Crustimony Proseedcake mean?" said Pooh. "For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me."2

Writers are often advised to avoid long, especially Latinate, words. In 1802 Sidney Smith complained about another minister's sermon: "[He] seems to think, that eloquence consists ... in a studious arrangement of sonorous, exotic, and sesquipedal words: a very ancient error, which corrupts the style of young, and wearies the patience of sensible men."3

The second of six rules George Orwell lists in his often-anthologized essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946) is "[n]ever use a long word when a short one will do." For example, use use instead of utilize. Generally, this is good advice but simplistic and Orwell knew it. His sixth rule is "break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." His general advice is to "let the meaning choose the word, not the other way about."

E. B. White in The Elements of Style says "[d]o not be tempted by twenty-dollar words when there is ten-center handy, ready and able."4 Of course we should resist all sorts of temptations, but, as with much of The Elements of Style, the advice is simplistic. Word choice must be based on the author's audience and purpose.5

We shouldn't use a long word just because we've heard others use it or we think it sounds more "educated," but we shouldn't use a short word if another expresses exactly the meaning we want (eject or defenestrate) or the nuance the context requires (oily or oleaginous). We must decide what we want to say and then choose the right word whatever its length or origin.

   The spine has been tingled; the horn has been swoggled.
   The blood has been curdled; the polly's been woggled.
   The mind has been bent, and the heart has been rent;
   The pan has been handled; the ambi is ent.
   The polysyllabics have got the mind boggled.6

When playing word games, it is useful to know many short, obscure, even archaic words that contain difficult-to-play letters such as qat, hm, xi, jo, ka, pyx, adz and vug. Many positional word games reward a knowledge of such words.

Sesquipedal, however, gives additional length-points based on the length of a word; longer words earn more points. You earn more points by playing long words and by extending words by adding prefixes and suffixes and transforming one form to another:

Word Length:                   1   2   3  4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13  14   15
Primary-word Length Points:    0 -15 -10  0  10  15  21  28  36  45  55  66  78  91  105
Cross-word Length Points:      0   0   0  0  10  15  21  28  36  45  55  66  78  91  105

Notice that 2-letter and 3-letter cross-words are not penalized as are primary words. This makes it possible to extend the length of words and abut words without being penalized for short cross-words.

game board 6 letter-points - 10 length-points = -4 points total

game board 7 letter-points + 0 length-points = 7 points total

game board 8 letter-points + 10 length-points = 18 points total

game board 15 letter-points + 21 length-points = 36 points total

game board

The primary word SO earns 2 letter-points and -15 length-points. The cross-word HEALS earns 8 letter-points and 10 length-points. Total points = 5 (2 -15 + 8 + 10). Adding S to HEAL to form HEALS would earn 18 total points, but by playing S and O to form SO it becomes the primary word and the total for the play is only 5 points.

There is no bonus for playing all 7 letters from your tray in one move (sometimes called a bingo). The aim of the game is to earn points by playing long words. Adding one letter to a word can earn more length-points than many 7-letter words.

game board = 80 points

When playing Sesquipedal, do not fear to use those "noddle puzling sequepedalian words."7 Be not like My Lady:

graphic of woman hiding her face

The doctors make a report which begins "The subanhypaposupernal anastomoses of peritomic diacellurite in the encephalo digital region...." My Lady "was so frightened at the long words that she ran for her life, and locked herself into her bedroom, for fear of being squashed by the words and strangled by the sentence." So "she made Sir John write to the Times to command the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the time being to put a tax on long words."

"A light tax on words over three syllables, which are necessary evils, like rats; but like them must be kept down judiciously."

"A heavy tax on words over four syllables, as heterodoxy, spontaneity, spiritualism, spuriosity, etc."

"And on words over five syllables (of which I hope no one will wish to see any examples), a totally prohibitory tax."

"[B]ut when he [Chancellor of the Exchequer] brought in his bill, [some members] ... opposed it most strongly, on the ground that in a free country no man was bound either to understand himself or to let others understand him. So the bill fell through on the first reading; and the Chancellor, being a philosopher, comforted himself with the thought that it was not the first time that a woman had hit off a grand idea and the men turned up their stupid noses thereat."8

There is no tax on polysyllabic words when playing Sesquipedal.

See also

Quick Intro to Sesquipedal

A discussion of the origin and development of Sesquipedal

Wee Words a game that rewards playing short words


1The American Heritage Dictionary, 1980.

2A.A. Milne, The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, with decorations by Ernest H. Shepard (NY: Dutton Children's Books), 1994, 48.

3Rev. Sidney Smith, "Dr. Parr: review of 'Spital Sermon,' preached at Christ Church upon Easter -- Tuesday, April 15, 1800," Edinburgh Review, 1802 in Works of The Rev. Sidney Smith (New York: Edward G. Taylor, 1846), 3.

Dr. Parr seems to think, that eloquence consists not in exuberance of beautiful images - not in simple and sublime conceptions - not in the feelings of the passions; but in a studious arrangement of sonorous, exotic, and sesquipedal words: a very ancient error, which corrupts the style of young, and wearies the patience of sensible men.

4William Strunk, Jr. The Elements of Style, with Revisions, an Introduction, and a New Chapter on Writing by E. B. White (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959).

5The title Bill Watterson's comic-strip character Calvin Calvinchooses for his elementary-school book report is clearly inappropriate for his audience: "The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes" (The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel,1995), 184.)

6First stanza of "Wooly Words," by Robert N. Feinstein, in Oysters in Love (Stronghold Press, 1984).

7Confused characters of conceited coxcombs, or, A dish of traitorous tyrants, reprinted from the original edition of 1661, James O. Halliwell, ed. (London: Thomas Richards, 1860), 20. Confused characters... is a book of characters. A character is a brief sketch of a person who is an example of some quality (such as virtue) or type (fop, country bumpkin, etc.). The quotation is from the description of the courtier.

His tutor perhaps takes paines with him in his logick, but he neither can nor will understand any term but that of a non entity, because he is conscious to himself he's no schollar. A thought of smagletius terrifies and affrights him as much as compossibilitas and incompossihilitas did noble Randolphs simplicius1; perhaps if he be somewhat of Balams temper, that would be accounted a good conjurer, but wo'nt take pains, then he steeps and souseth his memory with a few hard words and broken sentences, and thereby gets and obtains his end, viz., the reputation of a good schollar amongst his fellows; that do as much fear the rattling discord of such harsh sounding, noddle puzling sequepedalian words, as ever that white-liver'd monarch did thunder, or as the slattering of a cadent brickbat.

8Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies (New York: Macmillan and Co, 1885) 149-151.

Note to the Notes

1"Randolphs simplicius" refers to a character in Aristippus, or The Jovial Philosopher" by Thomas Randolph which is a burlesque of the philosophical discussion -- in this case sack against small beer.

SECUNDUM gradum compossibilitatis, et non secundiim gradum incompossibilitatis. What should this Scotus mean by his possibilities and incompossibilities? my Cooper, Rider, Thomas, and Minsheu, are as far to seek as myself: not a word of compossibilitas or incompossibilitas is there. Well, I know what I'll do. I have heard of a great philosopher; I'll try what he can do. They call him Aristippus, Aristippus, Aristippus.1 Sure, a philosopher's name. But they say he lies at the Dolphin, and that, methinks, is an ill sign: yet they say, too, the best philosophers of the town never lie from thence. They say 'tis a tavern, too. For my part I cannot tell; I know no part of the town, but the Schools and Aristotle's well; but since I am come thus far, I will inquire ; for this same thus far, I will inquire; for this same compossibilitas or incompossibilitas sticks in my stomach.

From Poetical and Dramatic Works of Thomas Randolph, W. Carew Hazlitt, ed., Vol 1 (London: Reeves and Turner, 1875), 6.

Note to the Note to the Notes

1Aristippus of Cyrene was the founder of the hedonistic school of philosophy whose basic tenet was that pleasure should be the aim of life.