When you break it down to its root words, you just might come upon an antiquated notion of women’s societal role.
Writing about over-the-top politically correct items for sale earlier this week got me in the mood to get in on some over-the-top political correctness of my own. And luckily enough, Mary Poppins floated down using an umbrella of antiquated gender norms to drop this in my lap.
The term “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” from the famous song in Disney’s Mary Poppins in 1964, just might be a insidiously sexist term. Yes, the meaning of it might be something quite atrocious.
In the 1998 book Crazy English by Richard Lederer, he breaks down supercalifragilisticexpialidocious into its root words:
- super – above
- cali – beauty
- fragilistic – delicate
- expiali – to atone
- docious – educable
Put ’em together and what do you got? “To atone for educability through delicate beauty.” Or, in other words, a woman apologizing for her intelligence and desire to learn and promoting her attractiveness instead.
But was the word intentionally created with that meaning? For that we have to trace where it came from and that gets… complicated.
Two brothers composed the song for Mary Poppins in the early 1960s. Richard and Robert Sherman are also behind It’s a Small World (After All), Chim Chim Cher-ee, and many, many other Disney songs.
In an interview in 2007, the brothers say they remembered supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as a “wonderful word from their childhood.” In another interview that year, Richard elaborated, “That’s a word we sort of concocted from our childhood when we used to make up double talk words… 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 where it started.'”
And perhaps that’s true — and if so, and we take his word for it, it’s just intentional gibberish, not intentional sexism.
But a lawsuit claimed otherwise. (About his word, not the intent.) Two music executives named Patricia Smith and Don Fenton sued the Shermans in 1965 for copyright infringement. They owned the publishing rights to a song called Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus, written by an artist named Gloria Parker in 1951. She would perform it in her lounge act at fancy hotels in New York City, and the theory is the Shermans heard it and co-opted it.
A judge dismissed the suit, primarily because the music of both songs was completely different. As for the word, Parker said she’d heard it growing up in the south, and the judge determined it was public domain.
But I’ve strayed far, far off the track here, which is about whether the word is secretly sexist. And the answer is… not through the intention of either of the above artists, or perhaps anyone’s intention.
Whether the Shermans co-opted the word (more likely) or came upon it in a “thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters” way (less likely), it’s hard to believe they were concerned with its linguistic roots. Likewise, it’s highly doubtful that an empowered, ambitious female singer/songwriter would research romance languages to create a word about demurring it up.
Assuming, though, that neither actually created the word and its origins stretch back even further, I’d say there’s a fighting chance it was created as a silly kids’ word representing a now antiquated ideal of femininity. Through a modern lens, it’s cringeworthy in its sexism; through the lens of the past, when societal norms and gender roles were far, far different than today, perhaps less so. That doesn’t excuse it, but it contextualizes it.
I’m not outright opposed to judging the past through the filter of today. I once compiled a list of 11 vintage sexist ads that would never fly today, and it feels wrong to just write them off as, “Oh, things were different then,” especially the ones that toy with domestic violence. Likewise, things like blackface, or using a gay TV or movie character’s exaggerated effeminate side as a punchline in and of itself, or the infinite supply of other examples — those are also not something to just be written off.
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” as a sexist term, though? Feels like it probably doesn’t deserve its own full slice of the outrage pie. Especially since, regardless of those root words, the word has taken on plenty of other meanings that have more than replaced one that, really, very few people are talking about.
So, basically, I turned nothing into something into nothing again. I am a living embodiment of Twitter.
Now then. I’m off to get outraged about Mary Poppins literally advocating that kids eat entire spoonfuls of sugar.