Dear Straight Dope:
A friend and I were talking about how easy it is to bullshit ignorant people even though one may be very ignorant in that particular subject matter themselves. So we decided to bet a small sum of money whether we can bullshit each other. We each gave each other four obscure facts of knowledge and we have to find out the one that is bullshit. The one I believe is bullshit is that the Mary-Poppins-coined word "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is really a term regarding Irish whores. Thus far my research into the subject has turned up an author named Eric P. Hamp, who has various Celtic stuff that mentioned the word in question. However, I can't find the exact text. Please help me win a bet.
SDStaff Eutychus replies:
Sadly, the exact origin of the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” may never be pinned down, so this will be, for the time being at least, an incomplete report. But we do know this — it considerably predates the 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins in which it was prominently featured.
The word was never used in the original P. L. Travers books. The common theory is that the word was created by Richard and Robert Sherman for use in the song of the same name in Mary Poppins. This is far from the case. Our research first took us to a lawsuit that was filed after the movie came out by Life Music, Inc., against Wonderland Music, the publisher of the Mary Poppins song. It was a copyright infringement suit brought by Barney Young and Gloria Parker, who had written a song in 1949 entitled “Supercalafajaistickespeealadojus” and shown it to Disney in 1951. They asked for twelve million dollars in damages. The suit was decided in the Shermans’ favor because, among other reasons, affidavits were produced from two New Yorkers, Stanley Eichenbaum and Clara Colclaster, who claimed that “variants of the word were known to and used by them many years prior to 1949.”
The decision makes for fairly humorous reading. Apparently the judge got tired of writing out the whole word, so every time it had to be mentioned it was replaced by the phrase “the word” as if it were some loathsome artifact that had to be held at arm’s length.
At any rate, we now had some indication that the word had been used previously, so we attempted to follow up on the reference to Eric P. Hamp in the original question. All I could find was a quick comment in response to a query in the journal American Speech where Hamp explains that the word should be broken up into two sections: supercalifragilistic and expialidocious. Big help. But it did lead us to the original query in Volume 47 of that journal. There, folk etymologist Peter Tamony claims that “an example in print was found in a Syracuse University humor magazine of the 1930s.” He fails, however, to provide a cite.
The Orange Peel was the only humor magazine we could find any reference to that was published at the time at Syracuse University. (It later merged with another magazine Argot to become The Syracusan.) So, we contacted Ed Galvin at the Syracuse University Archives. His assistant, Mary O’Brien, tells us that this is a rumor that surfaces every ten years or so. She says, “I remember searching through the “Orange Peel” in the early 1990s for any trace of ‘supercalifragilisticexphilalidocious’ and the university archivist at the time, Mrs. Amy Doherty, also researched the rumor. No trace of the origin was ever found.”
Heading back to square one, we went back to the Sherman brothers to see what they may have said about it. In their book Walt’s Time: From Before to Beyond, they state:
When we were little boys in the mid-1930’s, we went to a summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains, where we were introduced to a very long word that had been passed down in many variations through many generations of kids. The word was first coined in 1918, and was supposed to be even bigger and harder to say than antidisestablishmentarianism … The word as we first heard it was super-cadja-flawjalistic-espealedojus.
They also fail to provide a cite or a source for the 1918 date.
So that’s where we stand right now. However, I can tell you that the idea that it originally referred to Irish whores is most likely, as you say, bullshit. The only source I can find that gives it even a little credence is an online article in Maxim magazine, (Page is no longer available) which is rarely our first source for entymological information:
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, the word supposedly coined by Mary Poppins to make kids sound “precocious,” was actually invented by turn-of-the-century Scottish coal miners. It was used to request “the works” from prostitutes by men too shy to recite specific acts.
This article is assumed to be satirical as it also stated that Lumiere, the candlestick from Beauty and the Beast, was based on self-immolating Buddhist monks. But the site did have some nice pictures of Anna Kournikova, so it wasn’t a complete loss.
SDStaff Eutychus, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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