Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious: What does it mean?

 
Scene from Mary Poppins

Robert B Sherman, half of the famous songwriting duo behind a string of Disney musical hits, has died. One of his most famous co-creations was the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. What's the story behind it?

As every child knows, if you say the word loudly enough, you'll always sound precocious.

Few neologisms have become so ingrained in the language and elicit such affection.

It was introduced into the Mary Poppins story by American composers Robert and Richard Sherman when they adapted the PL Travers book for the big screen.

In the 1964 musical film, starring Julie Andrews, the nanny with magical powers wins an unorthodox race - on merry-go-round horses - and is surrounded by reporters who say she must be lost for words.

"On the contrary, there's a very good word," she replies, before bursting into song.

The Shermans' songbook

Bob Sherman (left) with brother Richard and Walt Disney
  • Mary Poppins
  • Jungle Book
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • The Aristocats
  • It's a Small World (After All) - song from Disney theme park (pictured above with Walt Disney)

"It's something to say when you don't know what to say," says one of the two children, Jane. So in the film, the word has no meaning, although it acts as a powerful keepsake from the children's magical adventure.

In an interview with a website in Los Angeles, Richard Sherman once said it was a word constructed in the same way he and his brother used to make up words in their childhood.

"We used to make up the big double-talk words, we could make a big obnoxious word up for the kids and that's where it started.

"'Obnoxious' is an ugly word so we said 'atrocious', that's very British.

"We started with 'atrocious' and then you can sound smart and be precocious.

"We had 'precocious' and 'atrocious' and we wanted something super-colossal and that's corny, so we took 'super' and did double-talk to get 'califragilistic' which means nothing, it just came out that way.

"That's in a nutshell what we did over two weeks."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has now come to mean an expression of excited approval.

But it says there was an earlier form of the word, supercalafajalistickespialadojus, first documented in a song in 1949.

OED dictionary

The song's writers were unsuccessful in taking legal action for alleged copyright infringement against the company that published the Disney song.

Whatever the true origins - and the Shermans always maintained they were unaware of the other song - they popularised the word which, nearly 50 years on, does not seem to have lost its magic.

Fans of Scottish football club Celtic will not want reminding that one of the most memorable newspaper headlines in recent years was coined after lowly Inverness Caledonian went to the fortress of Parkhead and beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup in 2000.

The Sun's back page said: "Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious"

Start Quote

It makes language exciting, it makes words fun”

End Quote Matt Wolf Theatre critic

"For me it's all about rhythm," says lexicographer Susie Dent. "Although the word has developed a semi-independent life of its own, it is hard not to hear the song in your head as you recite it, and 'recite' seems to be the better word than 'say'.

"It is unwieldy in its length, yes, but it is also beautifully crafted in its beat so that once you learn it, it is hard to forget.

"Its cheerful child-like nonsensicality - a much clumsier word - reflects rather wonderfully the idea of the fantastic and fabulous."

Matt Wolf, a theatre critic at the International Herald Tribune, says it's a very good song to choreograph because of all the syllables.

"There's something about the polysyllabic nature of it that makes you want to move to it. It makes language exciting, it makes words fun.

"This is one of the most hummable of all tunes. Even though it rhymes with 'something quite atrocious', it's called out with so much giddiness and joy that it leaves you feeling good.

The absurdity brings to mind Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky, he says.

"It's rather euphonious. It trips off the tongue. It's a cunningly conceived run-on word."

 

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  • rate this
    -9

    Comment number 80.

    is this really news? where is the historical fiction section?

  • rate this
    -10

    Comment number 79.

    ... it must mean *If the BBC gets any more asinine on its website, they will be forced to refund the each and every member of the British public 80% of their TV Licence fee by way of compensation*

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 78.

    72.Secretbanker said "Who cares ?"

    Obviously you do otherwise you wouldn't have posted.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 77.

    "...there was an earlier form of the word, supercalafajalistickespialadojus, first documented in a song in 1949" - "the Shermans always maintained they were unaware of the other song" - what an amazing coincidence - two sets of writers coming up with the same nonsensical word! If I were a cynic, I would consider the option that maybe Disney stole the word, or covered up its theft...

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 76.

    what on earth are people finding to say about this glorious word that can break house rules and need to be removed!!!!
    mind boggling!!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 75.

    Only in our modern, po-faced, politically-correct, boring society could we be debating the meaning of a meaningless fun word. The Sound of Music was created in a much more relaxed and mentally healthier era, sadly long gone.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 74.

    Some years back I wrote a pastiche of this classic for a review and called it "stupendafantawickimazing-unbelievalicious" where the theme was about food: no doubt other synonyms could be created too.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 73.

    My grandparents were potty about Mary Poppins and really loved Julie Andrews.

  • rate this
    -9

    Comment number 72.

    Who cares ?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 71.

    55. alanparker

    Serves you right for using window$

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 70.

    Not a lot of people know that Mary Poppins was an allegory of the Bavarian Illuminati and their role and ultimate purpose. The word being given headline here is in fact probably the most significant acronym in the esoteric tradition, as many of those having received at least the 3rd degree will be all too well aware.

    TSTCOBLAATCWUUIOSBOSOBAWNCSEEBTNEOWCBWOBA

  • rate this
    +19

    Comment number 69.

    64.by_heck

    If you don't get the meaning of the word, and what it is trying to convey then it is truly lost on you.

    In a time of recession with hard cuts and difficult times for a lot of people, something like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is even more important than ever.
    Sometimes allowing yourself to think about things that actually don't matter help you face the things that do.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 68.

    Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious is the name of double Olympic Gold Medalist Rodney Pattissons Flying Dutchman sailing dinghy, currently on display in the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.
    Actually that's not quite true . . .the titles licensee told him to change the name because it infringed copyright. He did, changing just 1 letter, although I'm not sure which one ;-)

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 67.

    66. Andrew Lothian
    "Proletarian Revolutionary, well done your class for even attempting to spell the word. I wonder if a class of nine year olds today could even know which end of a pencil with which to write the word. Come back Mary whitehouse, all is forgiven cause 'you were right'"

    Good work, insulting all nine-year-old children AND advocating a religious zealot's misguided bigotry. Class.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 66.

    Proletarian Revolutionary, well done your class for even attempting to spell the word. I wonder if a class of nine year olds today could even know which end of a pencil with which to write the word. Come back Mary whitehouse, all is forgiven cause 'you were right'

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 65.

    The late, lamented Frank Muir came up with this aide-memoire before going off on a shopping trip :
    He needed something for lunch; something to go with left-over cheese ; several bits of chilled stuff ; something to keep his socks up ; ingredients for an omelette, and something to cope with his bad breath . . .
    So . . .
    Soup, a cauli ; fridge, elastic ; eggs, peas, halitosis.
    Genius.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 64.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the film. And it's also nice to have positive fun articles on the BBC news website. But surely we can have something that's a bits deeper and more meaningful than the 'meaning of a made up silly word' and continue to show respect to Rob Sherman.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 63.

    @52, Greg. "This is a waste of space on the world wide web. We need to know the NEWS. Recession, Greece, Oil-prices and the FTSE 100 not bloody made-up words!"

    Of course, because it is so important that we hear how our tuppence that was so prudently, fruitfully, frugally invested in the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs, Fidelity Fiduciary Bank is doing!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 62.

    by_heck and Greg, chill out it is the magazine section and it is news! The passing of the writer of this much loved and very famous song.

    I didn't know of the other song and the chances of them coming up with it accidently are surely ridiculous! The power of Disney wins!!

    Still a great film and catchy song!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 61.

    So Disney ripped it off and the lawyers all got rich no doubt? Well nothing's changed there then. I hate the way that Disney films are all innocence and moral messages but are made by greedy litigious vultures.

 

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