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.
“It all stemmed from the time when we were youngsters,” Richard Sherman, now 83, told me when I reached him at his Los Angeles home, “at a little place called Camp Equinunk.” At this Pennsylvania camp in 1937, he recalled, “Everybody was making up crazy double-talk words, including my brother Bob and myself.” With their “double-talk,” they were partaking in a fine American tradition of cobbling words together out of nonsense syllables, like “discombobulate” or “skedaddle.”
“We were trying to make a word longer than ‘antidisestablishmentarianism,’ which was the longest word in the dictionary at the time.” Richard explained. “So basically this word, or a word similar to it, was being bandied about, and we heard it.”
They then forgot about the word, he said, for about 25 years, until the brothers were working on songs for the film “Mary Poppins,” adapted from the classic book by P.L. Travers. For the scene in which the Banks children wrap up their adventure in a chalk drawing, the Shermans hit upon the idea of having Mary Poppins bestow them with an intangible keepsake: a “crazy nutcase word,” as Richard Sherman puts it. Brainstorming, they recalled the super-long word they had learned at Camp Equinunk. The word as they remembered it was slightly different, with “flawjalistic” in the middle and “dojus” at the end. Richard says they “doctored” the word to fit the rhyme scheme, changing the final syllables to “docious” so that it could rhyme with “atrocious” and “precocious.”
But when “Mary Poppins” was released and became hugely popular, Disney and the Sherman brothers ran into trouble. In 1951, a song had been released with the very similar title “Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus” (subtitled “The Super Song”). The songwriters, Barney Young and Gloria Parker, had published an even earlier version in 1949. Young and Parker promptly sued Disney for copyright infringement, to the tune of 12 million dollars. According to their complaint, Young had coined the word in 1921, as a child in Lawrence, Mass.
“Glorious” Gloria Parker, as she was known when she was leading her all-girl rhumba band, now lives in Long Island, N.Y., and still looks back on those days bitterly. She recalls that when she and Young, who was both her manager and her fiancée, went to see “Mary Poppins,” they emerged from the theater in shock. “Barney’s face was waxen white,” she told me. Young claimed that he had sent Disney their song in 1951, after it was recorded, and that the studio had promised to use it. Parker suspected the Sherman brothers had heard her perform it with her band at New York’s Edison Hotel. (Parker, a multi-instrumentalist, was particularly known for playing the musical glasses, as she did in Woody Allen’s film “Broadway Danny Rose.”)
Richard Sherman, for his part, says he and his brother never knew about the earlier song. “As God as my witness, I never heard of that song,” he said. “Never, ever. All I knew is I heard a word similar to it years before when I was a kid.” He made this point in a deposition in the 1965 court case, and Disney’s lawyers set to work lining up experts to prove not only that the two songs were musically dissimilar, but also that the “super” word had been in common use before the 1949 composition.
When New York District Court judge Wilfred Feinberg issued his ruling, he threw up his hands at the thicket of spelling variations: “All variants of this tongue twister will hereinafter be referred to collectively as ‘the word,’ he wrote. “The word” had been used since the 1930s, according to sworn affidavits from two people who had grown up in New York. That, along with musical differences between the two songs, was enough for the case to be thrown out
Shortly after Feinberg made his ruling, a Disney librarian uncovered a smoking gun: a use of the word, spelled “supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus,” in the March 10, 1931 issue of the Daily Orange, the student newspaper of Syracuse University. I had come across mentions of this, but I was beginning to doubt its existence until I checked in with the staff at Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass. Steve Perrault, director of defining, dug up the old clipping, which had been sent to Merriam-Webster by Disney’s research department after the court case wrapped up. In a column called “A-muse-ings,” Orange staffer Helen Herman says of the word (which she also claims to have coined), “I’ll admit it’s rather long and tiring before one reaches the conclusion, but once you arrive at the end, you have a feeling that you have said in one word what it would take four paragraphs to explain.”
Despite having this wonderful old example, Merriam-Webster still has not put “the word” in its dictionaries. Random House was not so circumspect, entering it in its 1966 dictionary and defining it as “a nonsense word used to represent the longest word in the English language.” The Oxford English Dictionary includes it, too, with a long explanatory note on the legal wrangling over the word’s origins. It’s a fitting way to enshrine this lexical oddity that, despite all the contentiousness around it, has delighted generations of children with its sesquipedalian charm.Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.