Sometimes, the most interesting aspect of an element has nothing to do with chemistry at all.
Featured above: A couple amateurs indulging in floccinaucinihilipiliatory facetiousness.
A Thin Line Between Entertainment And Injury: “Thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon,” says Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost. What he’s alluding to is a parlor game that was popular at the time in which raisins were soaked in brandy, the whole mess was lit aflame, and the players had to snatch the burning fruit and try to eat it. My wife thinks it sounds like the kinds of challenges people do on TikTok, and I’m inclined to agree.
I hopped over to a different social video network and found this demonstration:
Incidentally, honorificabilitudinitatibus only appears once in all of Shakespeare’s plays, making it something called a “hapax legomenon.” In case you were wondering (as I was), “flap-dragon” is not a hapax legomenon. He also used the word in Henry IV, Part II (Act II, Scene 4) and Winter’s Tale (Act III, Scene 3).
In any case, Costard is right: The servant’s name is Moth — quite easy to say aloud.
further show notes are coming sooon
We’ve been through a lot together, listener. We squeezed through a crowded music venue from 1970s New York; we solved a centuries-old murder in the Alps; we witnessed the Ottomans shatter the walls of Constantinople. We watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. Er… that last one might’ve been somebody else.
What I’m trying to say is, you might think we’re almost done with this project. I mean, just look — we’re already in the sixth of the table’s seven periods.
So it may be surprising to learn that by the time we finish this episode, we will be exactly halfway through our exploration of the currently known chemical elements. That’s how long the last two periods are — together, they contain more than half of all the table’s 118 entries!
And there couldn’t be a more fitting pair of elements to mark the halfway point. Elements 59 and 60 used to be regarded as a single element, an element named didymium. That name comes from the Greek word for “twin.” So by sheer coincidence (at least for now), one twin ends the first half of the periodic table, and the second twin starts the second half.
So without further ado, let’s make like a fission reaction and split this thing in two.
You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.
Today, we’ll double your pleasure, double your fun, with polysyllabic praseodymium.
A couple years after Carl Gustav Mosander found lanthanum hiding within cerium, he saw that there might be more to uncover. Indeed, a little experimentation with rare earth minerals yielded cerium, lanthanum, and a new, third material. The reason he called this new thing “didymium” was because it was so similar to the element he had previously discovered — it was lanthanum’s “twin.”1
Friend and colleague Friedrich Wohler thought this was a silly name that sounded like baby talk, but Mosander would not relent. It was high time, he argued, for one of the chemical elements to start with the letter D. (It would be over forty years before dysprosium would be discovered.)2
Wohler suspected that Mosander had an ulterior motive for the name. It was hard not to notice that Mosander happened to have four children — two pairs of twins.
Mosander won that argument, but only temporarily. Didymium was not long for this world.
In 1885, long before he found success selling his gas mantles, Carl Auer von Welsbach found that Mosander had not discovered an element, but a mixture. (You might have noticed that’s a trend among the lanthanides.)3 Welsbach split a sample of didymium into its two actual constituent elements. He named these praseodymium, “the green twin,” and neodymium, “the new twin.” Element 59 takes on a green patina as it slowly oxidizes in air, hence the name.4 5
And what a name it is! Technically, “praseodymium” is not the longest name on the periodic table. That honor goes to rutherfordium, element 104, which comes in at 12 letters long. Protactinium ties with praseodymium for second place with twelve letters each, but praseodymium is the only element name longer than five syllables, so it’s the biggest mouthful on the periodic table.6
That’s impressive, but honestly, it’s not remotely in the running for longest words in the English language, no matter how you measure it. Shakespeare employed a word over twice as long in Love’s Labour’s Lost, after a servant walks in on his superiors having an insufferably magniloquent conversation. The comic relief explains to the servant,
O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words, I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as hon-or-if-ic-a-bil-i-tud-in-i-tat-i-bus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.”7
The word refers to someone who is able to achieve some kind of honors. Not exactly a word in everyday use… and in fact there is some intrigue surrounding Shakespeare’s conspicuous use of the word. Some people believe the Bard’s plays were actually written by scientist and politician Sir Francis Bacon, who, seeking to keep his reputation scandal-free, he attributed is bawdy works to this bumbling patsy named Bill. But unable to go entirely without credit, these conspiracy theorists argue, Bacon left behind clues to the real authorship. Honorificabilitudinitatibus is one of these. Its letters can be rearranged to spell out the phrase, “hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi,” which in Latin means, “These plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world.”8
It should be noted that one can create many different anagrams out of those 27 letters, including one that attributes the plays to England’s second-most popular playwright, Ben Jonson, as follows: “I, B. Ionsonii, uurit a lift’d batch.” Or the letters can be moved around to spell out, “Ubi Italicus ibi Danti honor fit,” meaning, “Where there is an Italian, there is honor paid to Dante.”9
No one seriously believes that the works of Shakespeare were secretly penned by Dante Alighieri — barely anyone seriously believes that Francis Bacon did, either, for that matter — but coincidentally, the 14th-century Italian poet did use the same word in his essay De Vulgari Eloquentia, in which he says that it’s a particularly long word. At least everyone can agree on that.10
A more notorious and even lengthier word is antidisestablishmentarianism, clocking in at 12 syllables over 28 letters. You can probably construe the meaning by looking at it, but just in case: It’s a word for the opposition (anti) to the removal (dis) of the Anglican church as the official religion of England, Ireland, and Wales (establishmentarianism). This was an actual political movement in the 19th century, and can also generally refer to anyone opposed to the separation of church and state.
But that’s not why the word is so famous — or at least, not the only reason.
In 1955, 12-year-old Gloria Lockerman was a contestant on America’s most popular game show, The $64,000 Question. She won eight thousand dollars by correctly spelling — you guessed it — antidisestablishmentarianism.
It was an impressive trick from a cute kid, but there was another, less wholesome reason the word was on everyone’s lips the next day. Writing for the Chicago Tribune thirty years later, Bob Greene explained:
There was a slightly racist aspect to people’s fascination with her: This was before the civil rights movement gained momentum, and Gloria Lockerman was black. Her brilliance was in direct contrast to many Americans’ stereotypes of black people, and there is no question that in countless living rooms, amazement was expressed not only that a girl of her age could spell the word, but that a girl of her color could do it.”11
Greene may have been generous by describing the reaction as only “slightly racist.”
Regardless, that was not the end for the young Ms. Lockerman. She returned the following week and doubled her winnings by spelling not just one difficult word, but an entire sentence: “‘The belligerent astigmatic anthropologist annihilated innumerable chrysanthemums.”
She could have gone for double or nothing again, but shrewdly decided to collect her winnings and leave, setting the money aside for college. This was at a time when a four-year bachelor’s degree would cost around $3,000 — and the remaining $13,000 would be equivalent to about $125,000 today.
“Antidisestablishmentarianism” is a pretty good candidate for longest word in the English language, but the title is disputed.
There’s a particularly large protein known as “titin,” and its full chemical name is just shy of 190,000 letters long. I’d pronounce it here, but it takes most people a few hours to read, and your time is more valuable than that. Plus, that’s not really it’s name. The interminable word is more like a technically accurate description of the protein’s structure, but it’s not published in any peer-reviewed scientific articles, nor any dictionary. Scientists working with the protein just call it “titin.” It’s mostly just a cheeky attempt to coin the longest word.12
That’s a trait the other contenders for longest word tend to share. It’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as ancient Greece. Assemblywomen is a play written in 391 BC by the playwright Aristophanes — not to be confused with Eratosthenes, the scholar who, 151 years later, became the first to prove the Earth is round and measured its circumference.13
Anyway, Aristophanes wrote an absurd comedy based on the preposterous premise that women might somehow achieve political power.14 Near the end of the play, there’s a feast, and the main course is an elaborate dish called [deep breath]:
Yes, that’s one word — the longest word ever published in the history of literature, in fact, at 172 letters long and 78 syllables. The entree it names is a smorgasbord of fish and poultry, including pigeon, rooster, shellfish, and rotten shark’s head.
But it’s also kind of a cheat, because it’s not a novel word so much as an agglutination of the words for all those animals stuck together, kind of like saying “crayfish pigeon cocks-comb honey thrush fennel sharkshead swordfishtrombones.” And if we’re looking for the longest word in the English language, this one is disqualified on grounds of being Greek.
At least the word’s inclusion in the classics gives it an air of respectability, something that cannot be said for “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” This word might sound like another meticulously precise scientific label, and it is, kind of. Literally, it’s a medical term indicating a variety of silicosis — practically the same as the berylliosis we first learned about in episode 4, but rather than caused by fine particles of beryllium, caused by inhaling airborne particles of ash that get stirred up by a volcanic explosion.15
Yet this diagnostic term was not coined by a medical practitioner nor a researcher, but by Everett M. Smith, President of the National Puzzler’s League in 1935. He presented the word to his fellow enigmatologists at their 103rd semi-annual meeting at the Hotel New Yorker. Primarily, he was making a joke about the ridiculous length of newly coined medical terms, but the members of his organization campaigned indefatigably for its wider recognition. Four years later, it appeared in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, but we should recognize that it was only included under duress.16
I hope you’ll forgive me for this fit of floccinaucinihilipilification — that is, to assess something as worthless, in this case, the pretentious coinage of arbitrarily long words. Incidentally, this one is a single letter longer than antidisestablishmentarianism, but at least it wasn’t invented for the sole purpose of worming one’s way into the Guinness Book of World Records. Rather, renowned poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone created the word out of four Latin roots in a letter to a friend in 1741:
[F]or whatever the world might esteem in poor Somervile, I really find, upon critical enquiry, that I loved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money.”17
The construction is relatively straightforward, all from Latin: floccus, literally a tuft of wool, or figuratively something trivial; nauci, something worthless; nihil, meaning nothing; and pili, literally a hair, or figuratively something insignificant.18
The word rarely sees use. About once a decade, someone in the halls of Parliament or Congress will use it when they’d like people to stop paying attention to the substance of what they’re saying and instead pay attention to their use of a funny word. As Michael Quinion wrote on his blog, World Wide Words, “The word’s main function is to be trotted out as an example of a long word.”19
You might even go so far as to say that “floccinaucinihilipilification” is itself practically worthless. That would make it an homological word, or a word that describes itself. You know, like the word “polysyllabic.” It’s a word that has several syllables, so it describes itself. Conversely, a heterological word is one that does not describe itself — like the word “monosyllabic,” which has more than one syllable.
This linguistic house of cards comes tumbling down, sadly, when you apply the word recursively. Is the word “heterological” a heterological word? If it is not, then it must be a homological word. But that would make “heterological” a heterological word, and therefore a contradiction. If “heterological” is a heterological word, then it cannot describe itself — but that is the very definition of “heterological.”
It is a paradox, a kind of statement that seems to arise from true premises yet contradicts itself. This one is the Grelling-Nelson Paradox,20 [Logic And Language: The Grelling-Nelson Paradox. 2017.[/note]named after the two German logicians who first proposed it, and it works in the same way as the famous Barber Paradox. If you haven’t heard that one, it goes like this:
In a small town, there is only one barber. He shaves all the town’s men, and only the men, who don’t shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself?21
If he does not, then he’s a man who doesn’t shave himself — and therefore must be a man he shaves. If the barber does give himself a shave, then he must be one of the men who don’t shave themselves. Ta-da! A paradox.
But pedants do not take issue with praseodymium for any inherent contradictions with its name, nor for its impressive length. They find “praseodymium” aberrant for the same reason as “homosexuals.”22 Tom Stoppard highlights the offense in his 1997 play, “The Invention Of Love.”
“Homosexuals?” says one character. “Who’s responsible for this barbarity?”
“What’s wrong with it?” says another.
“It’s half Greek and half Latin!”23
homo- comes from Greek, you see, and sexual comes from Latin. Similarly, praseo comes from the Greek word for “green like leeks,” dym from the Greek for “twin,” and -ium being a suffix with Latin roots and indicating a chemical element.
Linguistic prescriptivists love to scorn such words of multilingual origins for their lack of etymological purity, but this likely stems from an insecure sense of self-worth rather than any genuine concern. See episode 13, aluminium, for an in-depth exploration of this expression of repressed anxiety.
Speaking of anxiety, you might be wondering when I’ll end this unbearable stultiloquence and tell you where you might find element 59 so you can add it to your collection already.
In the physics lab, praseodymium is useful as a magnetocaloric material. In other words, its temperature can be manipulated by exposing it to a magnetic field. This is one of the many clever ways that scientists have achieved temperatures so very close to absolute zero.
Unfortunately for element collectors who lack exclusive laboratory access, there aren’t many ways to acquire praseodymium. The options that are available entirely have to do with that eponymous green color of the oxide.
You could get your hands on a pair of specialty safety glasses, specifically the kind used by glassblowers, blacksmiths, and other crafters who work with extremely bright flames. Glass tinted with a mixture of praseodymium and its twin, neodymium, will selectively filter out the colors of those bright flames while allowing other colors to pass through unaffected. Photographic filters containing the same mixture are also occasionally used to accentuate the colors of autumn foliage.24
What does one call that mixture of praseodymium and neodymium? Somebody along the line realized that there’s no need to invent a new term when Carl Mosander already created a perfectly good one: Didymium. This makes didymium one of the few “oops-we-made-a-mistake” retracted elements that actually does exist and could supplement your collection.25 26
Beyond its optical properties, praseodymium is also appreciated for the sheer beauty of its color — but only as long as people don’t know that it’s praseodymium. Element authority Theodore Gray explains:
Peridot is a valuable type of gemstone. This is cheap cubic zirconia colored to look like peridot, in much the same way that uncolored cubic zirconia simulates diamond. What makes it interesting to me is that praseodymium is used to impart just the right fake shade of yellow to cubic zirconia to make it look like peridot. There are not a whole lot of other things you can do with praseodymium, so I’ll take it!”
He’s right. Aside from some uncommon minerals, those are just about the only ways you’ll put this element on the shelf. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to praseodymium, that is the last word.
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn what the heck “flap-dragon” means, visit episodic table dot com slash P r.
Next time, we’ll check out praseodymium’s newer half with neodymium.
Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that often in tragedy, Peleus and Telephus, one exiled, one a beggar, lament in common prose, eschewing bombast and sesquipedalian words when they want their moaning to touch the listener’s heart.
- Chemicool, Praseodymium Element Facts / Chemistry. Doug Stewart, October 18, 2012.
- The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side, p. 172. Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa, Mary Virginia Orna, 2015.
- In Your Element, Praseodymium Unpaired. Adrian Dingle, April 19, 2018.
- Carl Auer von Welsbach: Chemist,Inventor, Entrepreneur, p. 36-43. Roland Adunka, Mary Virginia Orna, 2018.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Praseodymium. Last updated by Emily Rodriguez, January 24, 2018.
- Nature’s Building Blocks, p. 425. John Emsley, 2011.
- Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene 1. William Shakespeare, ca. 1590.
- Bacon Is Shakespeare, p. 100. Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, 1910.
- The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined: An Analysis Of Cryptographic Systems Used As Evidence That Some Author Other Than Shakespeare Wrote The Plays Commonly Attributed To Him, p. 106. William F. Friedman and Elizabeth S. Friedman, 2011.
- De Vulgari Eloquentia, Capitulum VII:735. Dante Alighieri, ca. 1302.
- The Chicago Tribune, Has Anyone Seen Gloria Lockerman? Bob Greene, November 24, 1987.
- Reader’s Digest, What Is The Longest Word In The English Language? Hint: It’s 189,819 Letters Long. Brandon Specktor.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Eratosthenes [Of Cyrene]. Last updated February 20, 2020.
- The American Political Science Review, Fantasy, Irony, And Economic Justice In Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen And Wealth. John Zumbrunnen, August 2006.
- Merriam-Webster, Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.
- World Wide Words, Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Michael Quinion, April 23, 2011.
- Half-Hours With The Best Letter-Writers And Autobiographers: Forming A Collection Of Memoirs And Anecdotes Of Eminent Persons, p. 281. Charles Knight, 1867.
- Etymonline, Floccinaucinihilipilification.
- World Wide Words, Floccinaucinihilipilification. Michael Quinion, May 12, 2001.
- Wolfram MathWorld, Grelling’s Paradox.
- Plus Magazine, Mathematical Mysteries: The Barber’s Paradox. Helen Joyce, May 1, 2002.
- Sentence First, The Monstrous Indecency Of Hybrid Etymology. Stan Carey, November 28, 2011. No offense, Mr. Carey.
- The Invention Of Love, Act I. Tom Stoppard, 1997.
- Radio New Zealand, Praseodymium – A Long Name But Not Many Uses. Alison Ballance, September 16, 2019.
- Phillips Safety Products, Didymium Safety Glasses.
- Elementymology And Elements Multidict, Names That Did Not Make It. Peter van der Krogt.