When the songwriter Robert B. Sherman died last month at the age of 86, one word was frequently mentioned in tributes to him: “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” He and his brother Richard had penned a countless number of catchy and inventive songs, mostly as staff composers for Walt Disney Studios in the 1960s and ‘70s. But that 34-letter, 14-syllable tongue twister made famous by the 1964 film “Mary Poppins” is particularly memorable. It might be the Sherman brothers’ most celebrated legacy.
Behind this fanciful word, however, is an unusual language story — the tale of a bit of American nonsense that became the subject of a multimillion-dollar legal battle, and on whose origins no one can agree. In fact, numerous different parties have claimed the word as their invention, or even their intellectual property.