Recently I was listening to the Sound of Music song, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” which was running through my head on a loop for several days, though I have no idea why.
I kept coming back to the line where three nuns describe the free-spirited novice as “a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown” (the latter contributed by the grumpy one).
The word “flibbertigibbet” caught my attention. It means, “frivolous, flighty, an excessively talkative person.” English specializes in long, colorful, whimsical words like that. I’ve collected a number of them over the years. Allow the pure sound of these to roll over you:
Flabbergasted, Gobsmacked, Bamboozled, Blutterbunged, Dumbfounded, Nonplussed, Befuddled, Stupefied, Discombobulated, Flummoxed.
What do they have in common? They’re synonyms.
And there are plenty more: astonished, astounded, amazed, staggered, surprised, startled, stunned, thunderstruck, aghast, confounded, awestruck, wonderstruck, unnerved, disconcerted, discomposed, bewildered, perplexed, baffled, stumped, mystified, disoriented, discomfited, unnerved, and shaken.
Remarkable, forceful, creative words. I’m gobsmacked just looking at the list.
English has a lot of interesting ways to say, essentially, that you’re “surprised, confused and possibly speechless.” The sheer number of such words, and the creative energy invested in inventing them, indicate that this is one of the core experiences in the human condition.
If you used any of these in Words with Friends or Wordle, your opponent would certainly be flabbergasted, possibly even blutterbunged, which is an old word, probably dating back to Middle English, largely obsolete. But there’s a modern website, blutterbunged.com, which promises “No Spoiler Movie Reviews.”
Spoilers, of course, leave us nonplussed, which is an especially discombobulating word. The original meaning is “surprised and confused, unsure how to react.” In North America, however, it means … exactly the opposite! Americans must have assumed that the “non” was a prefix (it’s not “not”). There is no word “plussed.” Doesn’t that make you feel surprised, confused and unsure how to react? If so, that makes you nonplussed by the word “nonplussed.” No doubt the Brits would classify our inversion of the word as just another of our “jackasseries,” which is an actual word and pretty much self-explanatory, even to us.
There are plenty of other peculiar words in English: ragamuffin, rigmarole, topsy-turvy, lollygagging, poppycock, brouhaha, kerfuffle, cattywampus, serendipitous, dipsy-doodle, whirligig, and snafu (a military acronym for “situation normal, all fouled up,” only the original employed a more colorful word beginning with “f”).
But the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) word is “supercalifragiliticexpialidocious,” which has a back story that will leave you flummoxed, if not dumbfounded. Most assume it was merely a neologism (made-up word) original to “Mary Poppins.” Richard M. Sherman, who with his brother, Robert B. Sherman, composed the music and lyrics for all the songs in that iconic film of boomer youth, apparently thought so too.
In an interview, Richard Sherman said he and his brother used to make up “big double-talk words” when they were kids at camp in the 1930s. So it was natural for them to come up with a word that is “really quite atrocious [and] if you say it loud enough you’ll always sound precocious.”
“We started with ‘atrocious’,” Sherman said, “and then you can sound smart and be ‘precocious’ and we wanted something super-colossal 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.”
That was their story anyway … until they got sued.
According to Wikipedia, “The plaintiffs alleged it was a copyright infringement of their 1949 song ‘Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus,’ also known as ‘The Super Song.’
Disney, however, won the suit because they were able to demonstrate that versions of the word pre-existed the 1949 song.
Again from Wikipedia: “The Oxford English Dictionary first records the word (with a spelling of ‘supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus’) in the column titled ‘A-muse-ings’ by Helen Herman in the Syracuse University Daily Orange, dated March 10, 1931. In the column, Herman states that the word ‘implies all that is grand, great, glorious, splendid, superb, wonderful.’”
The Shermans insisted they were unaware of the previous versions.
Wikipedia also includes an interesting aside: Richard Lederer in his book Crazy English breaks this “compound” word down into its component parts: “super – ‘above’, cali – ‘beauty’, fragilistic – ‘delicate’, expiali – ‘to atone’, and docious – ‘educable’. Combining all of these parts leads to ‘Atoning for being educable through delicate beauty.’”
English is one of the world’s largest and most spoken languages. Some estimates put it at one million “distinct” words of which supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is now, officially, one.
It may be a made-up word, but all the other words were originally made up too.
It’s enough to leave one speechless. (“Because I was afraid to speak when I was just a lad, my father gave me nose a tweak and told me I was bad, but then one day I learned a word that saved me aching nose, the biggest word you ever heard and this is how it goes …”)
But not wordless.
Be careful how you use it though.
Someone might accuse you of being a flibbertigibbet.