Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Super Cali Fragil Istic Expi Ali Do Cious!

Introduced to most of us by Mary Poppins, this nonsensical word is absolutely irresistible: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

I remember in grade school, we could make our own spelling list if we aced the early spelling test given at the beginning of the week. I would find the most bizarre words to put on my list to be tested on at the end of the week. One week, I choose “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and my classmates thought I was crazy.

I find it surprising that my beloved Mary Poppins (and her creators of course) were not the founders of the word. In fact, the word was never even used in the books upon which the Mary Poppins film is based. After the release of the movie, there was also a lawsuit filed by Barney Young and Gloria Parker, who had written a song in 1949 entitled "Supercalafajaistickespeealadojus" and had shared the song with Disney in 1951.

They lost the case, though, because documents were produced indicating that several variants of the word had been used prior to 1949. I couldn’t find any details about these examples, however. Interesting note: the judge in this case refused to keep writing out and saying the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” because it was so obnoxiously long. He repeatedly referred to it as “the word.”

What does the word mean? Well, Mary Poppins suggests that it is a word to say when you have nothing to say, a word that will also make you sound smart. Richard and Robert Sherman, who wrote the Disney song define it as follows: “super” (above), “cali” (beauty), “fragilistic” (delicate), “expiali” (to atone), and “docious” (educable). Over all, it would mean “atoning for educability through delicate beauty,” which is basically nonsensical anyway.

The rather satirical writers of Maxim magazine would have you believe that it is a phrase coined by Scottish miners who wanted to ask prostitutes for “the works.” This usage is undoubtedly false, but it does make for an interesting interpretation for some of the lyrics in the Disney song. For example:
“But better use it carefully
Or it may change your life
One night I said it to me girl
And now me girl's my wife!”

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