Get the Word! Podcast Episode: That Time I Spray-painted Antidisestablishmentarianism on the Side of My Van

Audio Transcript:

That Time I Spray-painted Antidisestablishmentarianism on the Side of My Van


Welcome everyone. I’m your host and fellow word nerd, Mike Butler. This week’s episode features a word often included in lists of the longest words in English. Antidisestablishmentarianism. You often see it on lists alongside words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (which is in the Oxford dictionary) popularized by the 1964 film Mary Poppins and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash, which probably could have worked too in Mary Poppins if Disney had decided to take a bit of a darker turn to focus on the occupational risks of being a chimney sweep (CLIP).

Aside from being featured on lists of longest words in English, antidisestablishmentarianism has a very real and very specific meaning. My introduction to this word came from the 1998 film SLC Punk!… a movie in which some punk rockers from Salt Lake City get their hands on bottles of spray paint and tag this 12 syllable word as well as sentences like “It’s not my imagination there’s a gun in my back” onto different paintable surfaces.

So for years I assumed this word was ultra punk rock. It kinda sounds like it, right? I mean, you have anti, and punk rock as anti everything, like these guys who either hate processed meats or surfers who show off too much (CLIP) ; and you also have the word disestablishment in there, which sounds like it would just mean you’re against the establishment or perhaps want to topple the establishment. (clip)

It’s easy to lose track of syllables here though. One is not anti-establishment one is anti-disestablishment and so let’s start picking apart this word here. To disestablish means “to deprive (an organization, especially a national Church) of its official status AS IN the Anglican Church in Wales was disestablished in 1919. (OXFORD)

Let’s finish breaking down this word and then we’ll discuss the word itself. “Anti” is obvious, against; We already did ‘disestablishment’; -arian as a suffix indicates that you are a person who supports something (it can also mean you are an Aries or that you are believer in Arianism, but that’s a different episode altogether) and -ism which is a suffix used to form a noun commonly related to some sort of ideological movement, principle or system like feminism; antihotdogism aka antisurfershowoffism…. etc.

So, altogether, we can say, that, antidisestablishmentarianism means “opposition to the withdrawal of state support or recognition from an established church, especially the Anglican Church in 19th-century England.” ( In other words, you don’t want to break away from the established church. There we have a definition, and we have a clue as to its use within a specific period of history.

According to, the first record of the word comes from about 1923. It’s noted that even back then it was memorable mainly because of its length. However, through the magic of Ngram, I have traced its use back closer to the turn of the century. Because of digitization we can not only access printed media dating back hundreds of years but even search for specific words within the text. I’ll share with you a paragraph or two from some of these sources I found. The first is The Inland Printer, a trade journal printed in 1901.

So even as far back as 1901 this word is already sort of a joke. I was hoping to find through these earliest sources its use related to disestablishment of the Anglican church. Oh well. I did find from these early sources a clue to who most likely coined the term, at least according to the Pitman’s Journal of Commercial Education, published in the year 1902, which according my research, I believe, was a resource for writers also known as a Phonetic Journal for learning phonetic spelling and phonetic shorthand. In this journal we get the name of a man, A. Graham Barton who claims to have invented and used this twenty eight letter word. Once again though, more in reference to the unusual length of the word than to its actual use or meaning. However, I did find this man’s name attached to an article about Religious Liberty from the Westminster Review, a quarterly British publication that ran from 1824 to 1914, so the timeline and potential connection to 19th century religious control in Britain syncs up for sure.

So there’s some digging for you as to why thinks this is a legitimate word. This is a real word with a history and a meaning. Now, that is if you believe that is a credible source, which I do.’s main, proprietary source is the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, and they state on their website that they have a team of experienced lexicographers and that they also supplement their site with the American Heritage and Harper Collins dictionaries. Some lexicographers out there, however, have turned their nose up to this word and feel it doesn’t belong in the dictionary as a word that truly has any real meaning aside from being just a word 12 year olds like to say out loud to impress their friends. After the break, we’ll pick apart this debate a bit more and discuss just what it takes to be considered a ‘real word’. After this.


Some of our most trusted dictionary sources out there do not consider antidisestablishmentarianism to be a worthy word for their pages. I can’t seem to find it in the New Oxford American Dictionary nor on the Lexico site powered by Oxford. I have been able to find it in the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and the Oxford UK Dictionary of English only. The same dictionary that decided to add ‘resting bitch face’ a few years back has something against antidisestablishmentarianism. Uh oh, I feel another prefix coming on… ok, I have to say it, yes, they’re anti-antidisestablishmentarianism. I joke, but this confusing slew of prefix and suffix use may be part of the reason why it’s not included in some dictionaries. Merriam-Webster likes to point out that this long word isn’t entered in any of their dictionaries, claiming that they are “the kind of lexicographers that like to enter words with meanings”.

Alright, let’s break down what Merriam Webster say are the three criteria all words must meet in order to be entered into the dictionary:

Sustained usage - Okay, NGram lists it as being used by sources continuously since the turn of the 20th century, so we have that box checked √

Widespread usage - Well, I mean if it can travel all the way from 19th century Britain to Reagan era graffitotag ridden Salt Lake City, Utah I’d say that’s pretty widespread

Meaningful usage - (evidence that the word is used to refer to something)

Merriam  - Webster’s official claim: “Where antidisestablishmentarianism gets disqualified first is the "meaningful usage" criterion. Go ahead: what does "antidisestablishmentarianism" mean? It's an example of a long word, but that's not its meaning. A word with meaning contributes essential information to a clause or sentence. When antidisestablishmentarianism is used as an example of a long word, it doesn't have a meaning at all. “

They do admit that it can have an inferred meaning based on its individual components that we discussed earlier. We know it has something to do with disestablishment, with these prefixes and suffixes tagged on to expand the meaning. They also admit that in their research going back over 100 years they had found 3 citations for antidisestablishmentarianism being used in reference to “opposition to depriving a legally established state church of its status”. They emphasis, in bold letters, however, that “THREE CITATIONS DO NOT CONSTITUTE “SUSTAINED” OR “WIDESPREAD” use.

Try telling this to people like Michael and Mary Findley, the authors of Antidisestablishmentarianism: Disestablishing America’s Established Religion (a book that’s definitely about religion and not about silly words) or to the writers of a article entitled: ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism’ isn’t in the dictionary. Let’s change that! The latter source I mentioned also gives us more clues to its origins as a word, stating that according to lexicographers this was originally a term used in a dispute over churches in Northern Ireland in the early 1800s. “The Anglican Church began to close, or disestablish, churches in Northern Ireland. A group of Oxford professors opposed this and became a small movement known as antidisestablishmentarianism — a movement (-ism) that opposed (anti-) the disestablishment of churches (-arian).”.

This was not the first source of information I saw that referenced this small movement of professors at Oxford. Hmm, call me a conspiracy theorist but maybe there’s something Oxford is trying to hide about this small movement of the 19th century and is perhaps why they entered the cabal of antiantidistesbalishmentarians in an effort to intentionally trivialize the meaning of this word and therefore shift focus away from its true meaning. Hmmm… Oxford keeps a good poker face though, or resting bitch face, whichever you prefer.

The Religion News Service article I mentioned, written by Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, goes on to say that the term today might mean a movement in favor of the government establishing a religion, due to its use of a double negative. “It could just mean being in favor of the establishment”. Very punk rock indeed. Grant goes on to give some hypothetical examples of moderate antidisestablishmentarianism and extreme antidisestablishmentarianism in an effort to usher in a “proantidisestablishmentarianism lexicographic movement”.

Looking at this amount of effort given, you’d think we can finally meet Merriam-Webster’s criteria for sustained usage and widespread use. What are your thoughts? Have you ever heard this word being used outside of the context of just talking about long words? Perhaps you would if you were on the campus of Southern Illinois University, at the very least. Write in to the podcast. Let’s start a discussion.


That sound means it’s time to open up the Fact Cabinet. I believe we have some items in here related to our topic today… let’s see… my old chemistry textbook from college. You know, I always thought it was weird that they made us memorize the correct sequence of 189,819 letters for the chemical formula of the protein Titin, which is typically considered to be truly the longest word if you can this as a word. Let’s see if it’s still up there in my memory banks: “m-e-t-h-i-o-n-y - 90 minutes later - e - u - c- i n -e… ah, there. I’m feeling kind of dizzy now. What were we doing? Right, Fact Cabinet.

Okay, just one more thing here… and I’m amazed I haven’t mentioned this yet, but I recently got my hands on some original copies of the literary papers of Soapy Sam. No, not Soapy Sam the chain of car washes in Indiana, shout out to Soapy Sam, the soapiest suds east of the Mississippi; they also do detailing and power washing; sponsor the show Soapy Sam for a guaranteed shout out every week; no, I’m instead talking about the 19th century Church of England bishop Samuel “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce. I believe Soapy Sam, an avowed abolitionist, also fits the criteria for being a proponent of antidisestablishmentarianism, as he argued that the COE should not be removed as the official church of Ireland, Wales and England. Anyway, Soapy Sam is probably better well known today for devising a riddle, that, according to the internet, which is never wrong, has never been solved. I know how sharp my listeners are, so I’ll go ahead and read you all the riddle. Once you figure it out, leave me a message on social media or the website or record a message etc. Here it is:

"I'm the sweetest of sounds in orchestra heard, yet in orchestra never was seen.
"I'm a bird of gay plumage, yet less like a bird, nothing ever in nature was seen.
"Touch the earth I expire, in water I die, in air I lose breath, yet can swim and can fly.

"Darkness destroys me, and light is my death, and I only keep going by holding my breath.
"If my name can't be guessed by a boy or a man, by a woman or girl it certainly can."

Well there you have it, my listeners, and advantage to those who out there who are women and girls. Can you be the one to finally solve Soapy Sam’s riddle?


I’d like to close with my thoughts, which come from my experience as a language teacher, teaching English to non-native speakers. English is always changing, which is why we call it a living language. Of course. It is shaped by the people who use it, including the millions who are learning it as their second or third language…… That’s why the direction of a language will always be in the hands of the masses, despite efforts historically by dictionaries to try to shape perceptions of people and culture; what is considered high brow / low brow, of the high class / lower class, what is considered civilised / uncivilised. We see entries in Oxford of terms like the misogynistic Resting Bitch Face, implying that a woman in repose must be a bitch if she is not maintaining a smile on her face, but we don’t see entries however for terms like, for example, ‘compersion’ the widely used term adopted by poly and nonmonogamous communities to describe a feeling that is much like the opposite of jealousy, feeling love for your partner as they enjoy someone else. A concept that is perhaps too foreign for the handful of lexicographers who decide which words will be relevant to English speaking nations. Who knows. Again, write in with your thoughts.

When teaching people modern English, I’m more prone to turn to rather than Oxford or Merriam-Webster if I’m truly trying to show my student how a word is being used by the culture. So let’s end there, with a few entries of antidisestablishmentarianism from the user submitted entries at

- entries online -

Write in to the podcast: . Give us your word suggestions, and I’ll take them into consideration for the podcast. Please rate and review this podcast ANYWHERE that you can. It’s super helpful. Podcast artwork by Bruno Sanches. You can find a link to his work in the show notes. Music performed by the Monroeville Music Center. Production, editing and research performed by me, Mike Butler. Write in to the podcast and give us your comments. That email again is We’d love to hear from you.

Potential misattribution, of course: “Soapy Sam’s… the soapiest”

Get the Word! Music and sound effects credits given throughout podcast series:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center:

And Kevin Macleod

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches:


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