This word is a piece of childhood trivia accepted at face value without a deeper look. I’m sure that by the third or fourth grade every kid with a piece of dirty white adhesive tape binding the bow of his black plastic framed glasses knew the answer to the question, "What’s the longest word in the dictionary?" This was a priori knowledge, somehow – a revealed truth undocumented by a thorough-going analysis or comparison, but a truth that stood alone based on the fact that just looking at it you knew that this was one long motherjumping word. Nobody ever referred to the monstrous "floccinaucinihilipilification," mainly – I believe – because it is unpronounceable, but also because it is meaningless.
One hopes that by now the name of some obscure protein buried on a polypeptide chain and known only to a tiny coven of bioinformaticists on some island off the coast of Maine will have replaced antidisestablishmentarianism as the longest word in the English Dictionary (or "the dictionary" as we anglo-chauvinists call it). That word with all its buried allusions to reverse-transcriptase and pheromonal import will of course be as opaque in meaning to the general public as "antidisestablishmentarianism" was to us fourth graders. Who knew what that long sucker meant. This is a rope of word, a word uncoiling to great length, a twisting highway of a word with reversals of meaning and extensions of understanding implicit in every prefix and suff.
What does it mean anyway? The question has flitted across the forebrain numerous times in the decades since first exposure, sparking little electrical storms in the synaptic net as referents are scooped up, antecedents examined, and ultimately a big "duhh" inserted as a placeholder where knowledge would otherwise be stored.
Fortunately, today we have the internecks (aka the Inkernets), and with the inkernets a marvelous suspension of disbelief occurs, a phenomenon that boils down to the time tested "I read it somewhere so I’m sure it’s true" – credibility served up on a CRT and spoon fed to the credulous. So, ignoring the fact that this explication has no deeper assessment behind it than did my credulous childhood unexamined faith in the shared understanding that antidisestablishmentarianism was indeed the longest word in the [English] dictionary (and of course the Germans would scoff at the idea that there could be such a thing as a longest word since their’s is an open-ended language with infinite extensibility leading to incomprehensible constructions as meaningless as they are long) – here is what it means:
Just as an aside, I should remind people that antidisestablishmentarianism is the set-up for a joke…
Q: What’s the longest word in the dictionary?
Q: Can you spell it? (and here the hapless butt is likely to touch the adhesive tape holding his glasses together as he ponders in true spelling bee champion fashion and begins…)
A: Antidisestablishmentarianism: A-N-T-I-D-I…
Q: [rudely] NO! How do you spell "it?" I-T, get it?
Here, from the BBC with only a little analytic backfill from your humble correspondent, is the meaning of antidisestablishmentarianism…
The first bill proposing the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales was presented to parliament in 1870, less than a year after the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland – an interesting example of the impact of Irish politics upon Wales. There were further bills in 1886, 1889 and 1892. Welsh disestablishment became official Liberal Party policy in 1887, a fact which further strengthened the alliance between Liberalism and Nonconformity.
The Conservatives, the traditional Church party, attacked the bills, arguing that it was foolish to consider that Wales had a right to it own legislation in so sensitive a field. It was an argument which led them to be seen as an anti-Welsh party, a development which caused Conservative candidates to be increasingly unelectable in Wales.
So there you have it. The Liberals were pro-disestablishment of the Church of England as the one true faith in Wales, and why not – really – since it wasn’t like Henry 8 had named it the Chruch of Wales or something, although he was the Prince of same and it was rumoured (with two "u"s) that he had buried some of the several brides out there in the principality, but I digress. The point is that someone who is for disestablishment could reasonably be construed a disestablishmentarian, and of course someone against it, an "anti." So it remained to append the curse of the twentieth century, the suffix of ideology and idiocy too – no doubt – the "ISM." I believe the motto in those days was "How can we have a schism without an ISM?!?" The ideological position of the Conservatives who opposed the Liberal proposal to do away with the Church of England as the established one true religion of Wales were true believers in "antidisestablishmentarianism."
When we return, a look at the number of flavors actually available at Baskin Robbins…