by Todd Clary, Ph.D.
I have seen quite a few articles, internet posts and YouTube videos about the pronunciation, usage and history of the English word floccinaucinihilipilification ‘the estimation of something or someone as valueless’, but I have not seen anything written expressly for students of Latin. This is a bit odd given that the word is actually a concatenation of Latin words in the genitive case followed by a bound morpheme also derived from Latin. But, before getting into the Latin elements of this big word that actually means very little, or one might argue, nothing at all, here is a bit on the history of the word.
Unfortunately, although floccinaucinihilipilification seems like a word that was made up by a single, clever and perhaps sardonic person, its origins cannot be traced to one individual. Rather, the best we can do is to conjecture that it originated among a group of students at Eton College, England sometime before 1741. This date is merely a terminus non post quem based on the first attestation of the word in surviving print listed in the Oxford English Dictionary:
1741 W. Shenstone Let. xxii, in Wks. (1777) III. 49, I loved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money.
The OED further makes the supposition that floccinaucinihilipilification was derived from Eton’s Latin Grammar. Eton College was founded in 1440, and its canonical Latin Grammar was written by William Lily (1468?-Feb. 25, 1522). The Eton Latin Grammar hyperlinked below is an adaptation of Lily’s work by T.W.C. Edwards dated to 1826. On page 154 of Edwards’ adaptation, in a section on the genitive of value, the following entry occurs:
‘Flocci, nauci, nihili, pili, assis, hujus, teruncii, verbis aestimandi peculiariter adduntur.’
This is the most convenient online quotation of the entry, but since the students at Eton must have been saying floccinaucinihilipilification well before 1826 for it to appear in Shenstone’s letter, it is clear that a similar entry occurred in Lily’s grammar, most circulating editions of which are also posthumous reprints (see references). So it seems the best we can do, at least without access to the Bodleian, is surmise that floccinaucinihilipilification originated somewhere between ca. 1500-1600, and that the word was cleverly coined based on the Eton Latin Grammar.
Now let’s move to the Latin lexical and grammatical underpinnings of this word. The first four components of floccinaucinihilipilification (flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-) are all Latin nouns in the genitive singular case. The use of this case described in Lily’s/Edward’s grammar is the genitive of value, or price, and it is usually listed in Latin grammars along with an ablative usage of roughly the same semantic import. Here is an explanation of the genitive of value from Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar:
Certain adjectives of quantity are used in the Genitive to denote indefinite value: Such as māgnī, parvī, tantī, quantī, plūris, minōris: —
And in section a) immediately after:
The genitive of certain colorless nouns is used to denote indefinite value. Such are nihilī (nīlī), nothing; assis, a farthing (rare); floccī (a lock of wool), a straw:—
nōn floccī faciō (Att. xiii. 50), I care not a straw. [Colloquial] (261)
So we see that flocci-nauci-nihili-pili- are all the genitive singular of nouns used as genitives of value. Further, Allen and Greenough’s assertion that this usage was colloquial is supported by the fact that we find these expressions in Roman comedy, a genre known for colloquialisms. Now let’s take a look at the meaning of each of these four words and see them in action in pre-Classical Latin.
First, a floccus was a tuft of sheep’s wool (it was not applied to straw, ‘I care not a straw’ is just an English expression cited for effect). Note the following passage from Varro’s Res Rusticae
tegeticulis subiectis oues tondere solent, nequi flocci intereant (2.11.8)
“They usually sheer sheep on mats that have been laid down, so that no tufts of wool are lost.”
In Plautus’ Haunted House we find the genitive of value used with the implication that a single tuft of sheep’s wool is worth next to nothing:
GRUMIO: satin abiit neque quod dixi flocci existumat? (Mos. 76)
So he’s gone? He doesn’t care a sheep’s tuft about what I said?
Unfortunately, it is not possible to be as precise about what exactly the Latin word naucum, or naucus meant. Even Latin speakers seem to have held the meaning debatable, as is evidenced by a lengthy gloss in Festus which I won’t repeat in full here, but includes quod oleae nucisque intus sit “that which is inside an olive or a nut” (Fest. p.166M), that is ‘a pit’. It seems plausible that this meaning would generate a genitive of “no” value. One thinks of the English phrase: “if life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits”. The genitive of value with nauci also occurs in Plautus’ Haunted House:
TRANIO: Qui homo timidus erit in rebus dubiis, nauci non erit. (Mos. 1041)
“A guy who’ll be hesitant when things are in doubt, he’ll not be worth an olive pit.”
Nihil ought to be a word familiar to most students of Latin, being the common word for ‘nothing’. It is sometimes learned as an indeclinable, but nihilum is a neuter noun with at least inflection in the singular. The genitive nihili occurs all over in Latin with the meaning ‘of no value’. Once again Plautus’ Haunted House illustrates this usage:
SCAPHA: video enim te nihili pendere prae Philolache omnis homines. (Mos. 245)
So I see that you value all people at nothing next to Philolaches.
The last of the first four Latin words in floccinaucinihilipilification, pili derives from Latin pilus ‘a hair’ as the following passage from Lucretius, de Rerum Natura shows:
ut pluma atque pili primum saetaeque creantur
quadripedum membris et corpore pennipotentum (5.788-9)
“As feathers and hairs and bristles are generated
from the limbs and bodies of animals and birds.”
The use of the genitive singular, pili, to mean ‘of little value’ occurs in Catullus:
et puella tenellulo delicatior haedo,
adservanda nigerrimis diligentius uuis,
ludere hanc sinit ut lubet, nec pili facit uni (17.15-17)
And a girl, more capricious than a delicate baby goat,
who should be looked after more carefully than ripe grapes,
he lets her cavort as she wishes, values her at one hair.
So the schoolboys at Eton College, probably sometime in the 1500’s took the first part of a list of examples of the genitive of value out of their Latin textbook, added the English morpheme –fication and made what was at that time the longest word in the English language. Finally, note that their cleverness did not end there, since this final morpheme, –fication derives from Latin facio ‘make’ (hence ‘making’ cf. amplification ‘lit. making more full, etc.’) a verb that is common in the Latin idioms with the genitive of value, and cited in the examples of the old Eton Latin Grammar:
ego illum flocci pendeo; — nec huius facio, qui me pili aestimat. (154).
So, in the often flamboyantly repetitive language of Plautus, one could imagine a paraphrase of the entire word in a Latin tirade: te flocci, nauci, nihili, pili facio! `In other words, I floccinaucinihilipilificate you!
For further reading on the influence of Eton’s Latin Grammar on English schoolboys, see the link to Nina Green’s article on Shakespeare below.
Allen and Greeenough. New Latin Grammar. New Rochelle/New York. 1998 reprint.
Edwards, T.W.C. Eton Latin Grammar. 1826.
Available online at:
Green, Nina. “Lily’s Latin Grammar And The Identity of Shakespeare” 1999. Available online at:
Lily, William. Grammatica Latina in usum scholarum adornata. London, 1651.
Wordsworth, Dot. The Spectator: 11 June 2011
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Todd Clary, a specialist in the Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit languages, holds a Ph.D. in Classics and Indo-European Linguistics from Cornell University, where he now also works as a professor in the Classics Department. He has taught “Homeric Philology”, “Latin Comparative Grammar”, “Archaic Latin and the Italic Dialects”, as well as all levels of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. Dr. Clary currently tutors Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.
Click here to see Dr. Clary’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.