The word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is a made-up word. Yes, all words are made up, but that one seems particularly so; it has a lot of letters, is difficult to sound out, and is typically used as a nonsense word. You’re likely familiar with it, though. In 1964, the Disney movie “Mary Poppins” took over the box office, delighting people of all ages with its magic and music. In one scene in the movie, Mary and three other members of the cast enter a world populated by animated characters, and during that scene, Mary breaks out in song, singing about one of her favorite words: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” If you’re still not familiar with it, you can see that scene here.
The song, effectively, teaches the audience (both the children on-screen and those of us watching) about the existence of the made-up world; to most of us, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious didn’t exist before 1964. That makes sense. In a 2007 interview, songwriter Richard Sherman claimed to have first coined the word:
How did you make up the word Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ?
That’s a word we sort of concocted from our childhood when we used to make up double talk words. In the screenplay version of Mary Poppins we wanted Her to give the children a gift they could bring back with them from inside the chalk drawing when they came out into the real world. If it was a tangible thing like a seashell or pine cone it would disappear. So we said, Remember when we used to make up the big double talk words, we could make a big obnoxious word up for the kids and thats wear it started. Obnoxious is an ugly word so we said atrocious word, thats 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 thats 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 nut shell what we did over two weeks. All together you get Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
But that’s not the case. Far from it, in fact. And Sherman probably should have known better: he was sued over the word’s origin more than four decades prior.
Shortly after “Mary Poppins” took the world by storm, two other songwriters, Gloria Parker and Barney Young, took Disney’s music publishing house to court. Parker and Young claimed that “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” violated their copyright. No, they hadn’t written a song that sounded like that one. They had, however, written a song called “Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus” back in 1949. Here are the two words, one on top of the other, so you can see how similar they are.
Today, with the benefit of on-demand music libraries, it’s easy to demonstrate that Parker and Young did, indeed, have a song that predates “Mary Poppin” and has that very long, now-familiar name. Here’s a recording of “Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus” from 1951 if you want to give it a listen; the song sounds different than the “Mary Poppins” classic but the word is very similar. And the spelling is literally on the record label, so there’s really no ambiguity as to that part of the “word.” It seemed that Parker and Young had a pretty great claim.
But it turns out that they didn’t make up the word either.
As Merriam-Webster explains, the earliest known reference to the word actually dates back to the early 1930s, more than 30 years before “Mary Poppins” came to theaters and nearly two decades before Parker and Young wrote their song:
The earliest known written record of a variant is for supercaliflawjalisticexpialidoshus from an “A-muse-ings” column by Helen Herman in The Syracuse Daily Orange (Syracuse University), March 10, 1931. The columnist muses about her made-up word, describing it as including “all words in the category of something wonderful” and “though rather long and tiring before one reaches its conclusion, … once you arrive at the end, you have said in one word what it would ordinarily take four paragraphs to explain.”
And Disney’s lawyers were able to produce evidence supporting that fact. While they couldn’t prove that the Sherman brothers didn’t copy from Parker and Young, they could demonstrate that the “word” existed in the public consciousness well before Parker and Young put it to music.
The judge dismissed the case.
From the Archives: Prisencolinensinainciusol: A fake word that’s also a song.