Floccinaucinihilipilification: The act of estimating as worthless

Flocci, nauci, nihili, pili, assis, hujus, teruncii, his verbis, aestimo, pendo, facio, peculiariter adduntur.

Eton Latin Grammar (1758)

What the sentence above was telling generations of Etonians is that the verbs aestimo (“to value”), pendo (“to weigh or consider”) and facio (“to make”) take certain objects irregularly in the genitive case. These objects are floccus (“tuft of wool”), naucum (“trifling thing”), nihilum (“nothing”), pilus (“hair”), as (“penny”), hic (“this”) and teruncius (“farthing”).

The first four genitives (flocci, nauci, nihili, pili) all provided metaphors for worthlessness.  Non flocci facere, for instance, was a phrase meaning “to consider of no importance”. In the days of rote learning, “flocci, nauci, nihili, pili,” no doubt tripped off the tongue, and presumably stuck in the memory of many a Latin student. So floccinaucinihilipilification came into existence as a bit of ironic fun at the expense of the Latin classroom.

The Oxford English Dictionary attests its earliest written use, in the form “flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication”, in a letter by William Shenstone in 1741, slightly before the publication of the Eton Latin Grammar—but the Eton grammar was a codification of a much older standard text by William Lily. Presumably Shenstone had studied this earlier version of the Eton text.

If something is worthy of floccinaucinihilipilification, then it is floccinaucical: trifling. It is in a state of floccinaucity. If you don’t have time to floccinaucinihilipilify something, then you might just floccipend or floccify it instead—the three are synonymous.

Floccus (“tuft of wool”) also gives us the medical term floccillation, which is the delicate plucking movement sometimes exhibited by people suffering from delirium, as if picking at hallucinatory tufts of wool. It has a Greek synonym, carphology, “twig collecting”. It may also be responsible for the word flock, as applied to coarse tufts of wool used for insulation, and frock, the long garment of which disgraced priests were unfrocked—but there’s some doubt as to whether these come to us from Latin or from the Germanic languages.

Naucum (“trifle”) hasn’t done much else for the English language except provide us with naucify, another synonym for floccinaucinihilipilify.

Nihilum (“nothing”) gives us nil, “nothing”, annihilate, “to reduce to nothing”, and nihilism, a belief in nothing much. And Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined transnihilation, the transformation of nothing into nothings; that is, a proliferation of nothings. It’s a fine dismissive term for the make-work record-keeping of modern organizations, and it needs to be revived and released into the environment.

Pilus (“hair”) gives us the pile on a carpet. Something that bears hair is pilose, piliferous or piligerous, and something that resembles a hair is piline or piliform. Something that removes hair is depilatory, and something that makes your hair stand on end is a horripilant, causing horripilation. And few things cause horripilation like pilimiction—the passing of hair-like objects in the urine. That may seem positively hallucinatory, but it’s a real thing. A blow to the kidney can cause bleeding into its fine internal tubes. And if blood clots there, it eventually shows up as fine, dark, hair-like casts in the urine. Something not to be  floccinaucinihilipilified.

Note: In case you’re worrying that floccinaucinihilipilification might have become extinct by now, I’m pleased to report it was used in the UK House of Commons as recently as 21 February 2012, by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the (predictably) Conservative Member of Parliament for North East Somerset (and son of the perhaps very slightly more famous William Rees-Mogg):

“I am glad to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the requirement not to be rude about judges applies only to judges in this country. It does not apply to judges in the EU [European Union], so let me be rude about them. Let me indulge in the floccinaucinihilipilification of EU judges …”

So there you are—recorded for posterity in Hansard. *

* And in case you’re worrying why the printed record of debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords is called Hansard, it’s named after the printer T.C. Hansard, who started publishing unofficial records (written by William Cobbett) in 1809.

2 thoughts on “Floccinaucinihilipilification”

    1. Hi Jacquie. Glad you enjoyed it.
      I guess once you’ve collected interesting words and etymologies for forty years, pretty much everything reminds you of something else. So this stuff just sort of condenses in my head in idle moments. Chasing up other related etymologies is then made easy by the electronic version of the OED, which lets me search the whole dictionary for specific root words. For instance, that’s how I was able to confirm that Latin naucum has made such a surprisingly small contribution to English.

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