jaw-breakers and spelling bees
U 3.51: Is that then the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial? Where is poor dear Arius to try conclusions? Warring his life long upon the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality.
There seems little doubt that this word, in the form employed by Joyce, is his own creation: 36 letters in which all sorts of ideas are thrown together in such a way that we are probably unable to unpick all of the resonances. Richard Ellmann has a go, in Ulysses on the Liffey (1978):
Stephen used ‘consubstantial’ in the preceding sentence, so we might reasonably assume that this could be one of the building blocks of the jaw-breaker.
But for everything after con- we can look elsewhere. Commentators have astutely drawn attention to the much earlier use of the suspiciously similar transmagnificanbandancial (letter to Charles Gavan Duffy of 15 September 1840) and transmagnificandubandanciality (appearing in the Vindicator of 8 August 1840), by the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan (1803-49). There is even an issue over whether the first of these two forms was transcribed corrected by C. P. Meehan in his Poets and Poetry of Munster (the eagle-eyed will have spotted the omission of –du- in the shorter form). Joyce is known to have made use of Meehan’s text when he presented a paper to the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin in 1902.
Mangan’s earlier use is cited in Peter van de Kamp’s ‘Hands Off! Joyce and the Mangan in the Mac’ in Configuring Romanticism: essays offered to C.C. Barfoot, edited by Theo d'Haen et al. (2003), p. 191:
But this is not Mangan’s coinage. The earliest reference found to date (and in more or less precisely Mangan’s form) comes from one year earlier, in the Christian Remembrancer of February 1839, in a review of Captain Studholme Hodgson’s Truths from the West Indies (London, 1838):
Hodgson does not use the term, but the review indicates that the word comes from across the Atlantic (though no earlier reference has yet been found). This puts the jaw-breaker in the same category as many other ridiculous but expressive terms which arose in the fledgling United States in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Similar outlandish words include absquatulate (to abscond, 1830-), hornswoggle (to cheat or hoodwick, 1829-), and sockdolager (a knock-down blow, 1830-). This was a period of intense creative activity amongst ‘Transatlantic Euphuists’.
alongside hon-or-if-i-ca-bil-i-ti-di-ni-tat-i-bus-que and various uplifting rhymes and verses. The superscript numbers showed the exercisers how to move whilst speaking the words:
The substantially reduced transmagnification even found its way over to Dublin in “Larry Geoghegan; or, a Drive with a Dublin Carman” (published in Argosy, February 1867):
Back in the United States the word was all ready for a new lease of life, in the theatre. New York’s Daily Graphic of 22 May 1873 reports:
Notice that the central –du- (Joyce’s –jew-) has now been lost. The word became a popular long word in spelling tests. The New York World of 9 March 1875 reports:
The -du- form seems to have been preferred in pedagogic exercises. New Yorkers were keen to pile syllable upon syllable, as in the Newtown Register’s offering of 25 February 1892:
But it was still popular on the stage (Trenton Times, of 22 September 1899):
By 1902 (15 November) a correspondent writing to the New York Times tried to call a halt to all of this frivolity:
It was a losing battle. Even boats carried the name (Newtown Register, 11 August):
The jaw-breaker received a tremendous shot in the arm in 1909 with the release of the song Trans-mag-ni-fi-can-bam-dam-u-al-i-ty, or, C-A-T spells CAT, available on wax cylinder and as an Indestructible Record. This version promulgated the –du- less variety. (See the sheet music and listen to the sound recording). The song was popular; the sheet music was advertised in the American newspapers, and people doubtless hummed the tune and sang the lyrics as they walked along the sidewalk.
The issue remains whether Joyce adopted the word from Mangan or from the popular musical tradition. The form he uses (with –du-) might suggest the former, though his magpie interest in song (where the –du- form is sometimes encountered) may lead one to prefer the latter. And then there is another surprise in store: the early Proteus draft (JJA 12, p. 239) shows that Joyce introduced (and crossed out) almost precisely Mangan’s form (even without the initial con-, but with his own flourishing jewbang): transmagnificandjewbangdanciality. He adds the initial con-, and tweaks two of the final letters, when he later scribbles the word into the appropriate page of the manuscript. However Joyce interwove the various traditions, he manipulated them for his own ends in Ulysses, and left a puzzle for later readers, as the word – once so popular in either of its major forms – dropped out of memory.
But not entirely: Sean O'Casey has 'Transmagnificandanbanturality! - I heard that at a pantomime, said Sean, when I was a kid' (Mirror in my house, 1956, p. 82) (recalling the music-hall and minstrel tradition).
Sean O’Faoláin plays with it in Bird alone (1985):
And the Kerryman of 10 April 1954 reminds us that the term was by no means exclusively remembered by writers:
Whatever his purpose in the Proteus episode, Joyce was part of a great tradition in incorporating the jaw-breaking contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality in Ulysses.