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  • Writer's pictureTessa Floreano

Holophrase: Less is more, except when it isn't

Word puzzle
"Lost in Translation" by surrealmuse is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Medical Dictionary defines holophrase as a "a single word, usually an imperative verb, used to convey a variety of meanings. It is common in the development of speech in toddlers."

Jane Harrison, the Cambridge classicist, gives an example of a holophrase taken from one of the indigenous languages of Tierra del Fuego: mamihlapinatapai, which means “looking-at-each-other-hoping-that-either-will-offer-to-do-something-which-both-parties-desire-but-are-unwilling-to-do”. What a fabulous word!

Compare it to Stop or Go, also holophrases, that are definitely in the imperative, yet super short in length and immediately understood when uttered. These words are a case where less is more.

Before today, I had never heard the term "holophrase" thus, I went on to research it and almost immediately found a most popular holophrase and the history behind it.

Here's what I mean:

Merriam-Webster (MW) tells us the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in Mary Poppins is said to be simply a word used as "something to say when you have nothing to say," but the mouthful of nonsensical syllables.

MW goes on to say that, "coincidentally, there was also a song called Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus that was written in 1949, and the authors of the song brought a suit against the Sherman brothers for copyright infringement. In the end, the court decided in the Shermans’ favor because, among other things, affidavits were produced that claimed that variants of the word were known many years prior to 1949, making the plaintiffs' claim unfounded.

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.'"

In the yet-to-be-named Book Three of my Lina Da Ponte mystery series, my protagonist and her good friend, Lina and Maxi, respectively, LOVE word games, and when Maxi creates one involving a holophrase, which later figures into a murder that Lina is investigating, the story takes on a new twist. A little nugget about my stories, dear reader, and perhaps, it will help to increase the suspense for you as I work toward publishing.

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