The Longest Words Belong to Science

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Scientists are often stereotyped as being rather long-winded individuals (though I'm sure many would write an entire paper to dispute that contention). Therefore, it might come as no surprise that science apparently owns the longest word ever published in a major dictionary. In 45 letters, "Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis" describes "a disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust, causing inflammation in the lungs."

However, indignant, long-winded scientists everywhere have a legitimate reason to dispute science's supposed ownership of the term. After all, it wasn't actually coined by a scientist, but by Everett M. Smith, who, in 1935, was president of the National Puzzlers' League, a group dedicated to word play and word games. One has to wonder whether Smith's creation was motivated by conciseness and descriptive accuracy or the tricksy desire to coin a long, funny-sounding word!

In light of the word's questionable origins, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have since adjusted its definition slightly, now referring to "Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis" as "an artificial long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust." (Emphasis added.) Score one for verbose scientists.

S
cience may not technically own the longest word published in a dictionary, but it definitely owns the longest word ever published in a book. The authors of the 1964 chemistry reference tome Chemical Abstracts, in all their verbose wisdom, saw fit to print -- in its entirety -- the chemical name of a 159-amino-acid-long protein belonging to the tobacco mosaic virus, which infects tobacco plants and stunts their growth.

Tobacco_mosaic_virus_symptoms_tobacco.jpg
Here's the word. Brownie points for reading the whole thing. Extra credit for doing so out loud. Quadruple bonus points for singing it amidst a crowd of colleagues to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner":

acetylseryltyrosylserylisoleucylthreonylserylproly lserylglutaminyl-

phenylalanylvalylphenylalanylleucylserylserylvalyl tryptophylalanyl-

aspartylprolylisoleucylglutamylleucylleucylasparag inylvalylcysteinyl-

threonylserylserylleucylglycylasparaginylglutaminy lphenylalanyl-

glutaminylthreonylglutaminylglutaminylalanylarginy lthreonylthreonyl-

glutaminylvalylglutaminylglutaminylphenylalanylser ylglutaminylvalyl-

tryptophyllysylprolylphenylalanylprolylglutaminyls erylthreonylvalyl-

arginylphenylalanylprolylglycylaspartylvalyltyrosy llysylvalyltyrosyl-

arginyltyrosylasparaginylalanylvalylleucylaspartyl prolylleucylisoleucyl-

threonylalanylleucylleucylglycylthreonylphenylalan ylaspartylthreonyl-

arginylasparaginylarginylisoleucylisoleucylglutamy lvalylglutamyl-

asparaginylglutaminylglutaminylserylprolylthreonyl threonylalanylglutamyl-

threonylleucylaspartylalanylthreonylarginylarginyl valylaspartylaspartyl-

alanylthreonylvalylalanylisoleucylarginylserylalan ylasparaginylisoleucyl-

asparaginylleucylvalylasparaginylglutamylleucylval ylarginylglycyl-

threonylglycylleucyltyrosylasparaginylglutaminylas paraginylthreonyl-

phenylalanylglutamylserylmethionylserylglycylleucy lvalyltryptophyl-

threonylserylalanylprolylalanylserine

If you weren't counting, that's a 1,185-letter word! It can otherwise be abbreviated as C785H1220N212O248S2, but seeing as how it belonged to the first virus ever discovered, I'd say it merited to be published in all its lengthy glory at least once.*

One word that's never been published (and will hopefully stay that way) is a protein not with 159 amino acids, but 34,350! Occupying 47 single-spaced pages of a Microsoft Word document in Times New Roman 12-point font (that's 189,819 letters), titin, otherwise known as connectin, is a gargantuan protein responsible for the passive elasticity of muscle. If its full chemical name is read, titin may also be responsible for invoking insanity.


*Wikipedia and a few other sources actually list Methionylglutaminylarginyltyrosylglutamyl...serine, a tryptophan synthetase protein, as the longest published word at 1,909 letters. This is incorrect. In exhaustingly researching his 2010 book The Disappearing Spoon, author Sam Kean never found the word in Chemical Abstracts, where it was supposedly located.

(Image: Tobacco mosaic virus symptoms via Wikimedia Commons)

Primary Source: The

Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the

History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, Sam Kean, 2010

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