- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) the act of estimating something as worthless
Floccinaucinihilipilification is an eighteenth century word defined as “the act of estimating something as worthless”—or in other words, “the dismissal of something as unimportant”. At its root are four Latin words referring to suitably trivial things, namely floccus (“wisp”, “tuft”), naucum (“trifle”), nihil (“nothing”), and pilus (“hair”, which is the rot of words like caterpillar, and the pile on your carpet). But why those four words in particular? Well, this particular etymological story starts with a little-known figure from English history named William Lily.
No, not the Cromwellian astrologer William Lily who was accused of starting the Great Fire of London by publishing a picture of a burning city fifteen years before the event. This William Lily was a sixteenth-century English grammarian and master of St Paul’s School in London, who published a series of Latin grammatical treatises in the early 1500s.
So successful and so popular were Lily’s writings that in 1549 they were conflated into a single educational work known as Lily’s Grammar, which quickly became the standard Latin textbook for all English schoolchildren. Even the kings and queens of England learned from and heartily endorsed Lily’s textbook—with Edward VI going as far as to decree that no other Latin textbook should be used in English schools.
By the early eighteenth century, however, Lily’s writings needed updating. A new and revised edition of his work was published under the title of The Eton Latin Grammar—named after Eton College—and there, on page 154, was this list:
Flocci, nauci, nihili, pili, assis, hujus, teruncii, his verbis, aestimo, pendo, facio, peculiariter adduntur.
The first seven words of that extract are seven Latin words—the four from above, plus assis (a low-value Roman coin), hujus (“of this”) and teruncii (a farthing)—that, by the rules of Latin grammar, must be used in the genitive case when they appear alongside the verbs aestimo (“to determine the value of something”), pendo (“to weigh in a balance”) and facio (“to do”, “to make or construct”).
What does all that mean? Well, for the sake of this discussion that’s thankfully not important—not that a lengthy discussion of Latin case construction wouldn’t make for a superb blog topic, of course. But what is important is that snappy quartet of near-synonyms that start that list off: flocci, nauci, nihili, pili.
It’s thought that that list must have been seized upon by students at Eton College, who started using those four words as the basis of slangy neologisms to do with dismissiveness and trivialities, and it’s from there that the word floccinaucinihilipilification first emerged in the mid-1700s. And although it’s never been a particularly well-used or well-known word, its remarkable length and its linguistic quirkiness have nonetheless kept it alive in the language ever since.