When most think of the word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” they think of 1964’s Mary Poppins and the famous song of the same name. However, there’s much more to the story.
It turns out that the word in question is even older, that its first printed use in 1931 was a key part of stopping a copyright suit from a pair of songwriters, and that said first printed use came from a writer for the Syracuse University newspaper, The Daily Orange. That makes it extremely fitting that there’s a “Mary Poppins” musical currently on a six-week run at Syracuse Stage. However, said musical was conceived long before director Peter Amster knew of the word’s Syracuse origins.
As Sean Kirst writes on Syracuse’s website, the first printed usage of a similar word appears to have come from a piece student Helen Herman wrote for the Daily Orange back in 1931, one where she says she coined the term herself. It’s spelled a little differently, but the similarities are remarkable:
This actually wound up playing a key role in a lawsuit against Disney in 1965, where songwriters Barney Young and Gloria Parker contended they invented the word in songs they wrote in 1949 and 1951. Linguist Ben Zimmer has more on that:
Several years ago, Zimmer spoke with Richard Sherman, now 88. Sherman co-wrote the song with his brother Robert, whose death in 2012 rekindled Zimmer’s sense that it was time to nail down the history. Richard says he and his brother heard the word for the first time in the 1930s, as children attending a camp in Pennsylvania.
Yet songwriters Barney Young and Gloria Parker sued Disney in 1965, contending they invented the word when they used a similar version in their own songs in 1949 and 1951.
They lost the case. The court essentially upheld the argument of the Sherman brothers. “It’s an American tradition to graft together different versions of many words to get longer, funny-sounding words,” says Zimmer, who believes variations of “supercal” may have floated up and down the East Coast.
Three years ago, Zimmer told the Syracuse Post-Standard about a key discovery. An archivist with the Merriam-Webster dictionary supplied him with a file on the background of “supercal,” a word that has yet to find its way into the pages of that dictionary. The file included a clipping supplied in 1965 by Harvey Fortier, a Disney librarian.
It was the 1931 piece written in Syracuse by Helen Herman, for a Daily Orange column called “A-muse-ings.”
As Zimmer says earlier in the piece, Herman’s use of the word doesn’t necessarily mean that she coined it (or, for that matter, that the Shermans’ story about hearing it at a children’s camp is inaccurate). There’s a long American tradition of grafting words together to make longer, silly-sounding words, as Zimmer wrote in another article in 2014. However, it is fascinating to find where this first appeared in print, and that it was a key part of Disney’s defense in that lawsuit. Congratulations to Syracuse for producing a thoroughly supercalifragilisticexpialidocious story.