contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality: 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 is obsessed by questions of the relative degrees of ghostliness and substance in the persons of the Trinity; he lumps them together under the rubric of 'contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality' (the consubstantiation, transubstantiation, magnification of a Jewish, explosively begotten God-man). (p. 28)

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:

The ancient Editress of the Morning Herald presents her compliments to the young Editor of the Vindicator, and respectfully begs that he will exercise his powerful influence with the Man in the Cloak – to whose toploftical transmagnificandubandanciality of genius she bears a willing testimony – and obtain from him, in the next conclave, some slight recognitional notice of her insignificant existence, as it may be the means of putting a few halfpence in her pocket. ['The Editor's Room. Third Conclave', [Belfast] Vindicator 8 August 1840]

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):

This os magna soniturum, our Transatlantic Euphuists designate by the gentle appellation of Transmagnificandubandantiality; and 'Her Majesty's 19th Regiment of Foot', embodied (see title-page) in the dignified person of this Captain, may lay claim to the honour of its Anglican appropriation. (p.74)

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’.

Although transmagnificandubandantiality has many of the characteristics of a nonsense word (compare Mary Poppins’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (34 letters long), which has itself been tracked back to a song published in 1949 (see the OED), it has some semantic implications in its early use: it seems to connote the expansiveness of outlook or expression symptomatic of the emerging nation, which slightly later revelled in transmagnify and transmagnification. The Christian Remembrancer associates it with ‘os magna soniturum’, a ‘great utterance’ – as in Milton.

The word remained in use from time to time in the United States. We find occasional references up to the 1870s. But as time passed, its semantic content faded and it assumed the status of a nonsense word or one which was used in spelling tests and vocal exercises. Most notably, it was associated with the system of ‘free gymnastic exercises’ and callisthenics of Rothstein and Ling. James Henry Smart’s Manual of free gymnastic and dumb-bell exercises: for the school-room and the parlor (Cincinnati, 1864) utilized it as an aid to health and elocution, separating out the syllables for clarity of speech and ease of enunciation, accompanied by specific gymnastic movements:

Vocal exercises… 12345 612 345 6 123 456 123 45 61 2 34

trans – mag – nif – i – cat – ban – dan – ju – al – i – ty (p. 31)

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:

1. Both hands strike against side, elbows straight.

2. Both hands strike on chest.

3. Strike hands together once at front. [Etc.]

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):

Och, and thin, Larry, after the poteen boils, and the stame rises, to see it come dribblin' out, drop, drop, drop, liquid goold, out of the dirty matayrial barley, sure 'tis a transmagnification that bates all the metamurhosys of Ovid, as far as Blarney bangs Banagher. (p. 202)

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:

Amateur Theatricals… Consult about the oesophagus becoming hyperemic, and the effect of transmagnificanbandanduality on the general system – just as the allopathic fellows do down to Bellevue and up to St. Luke’s. (p. 3)

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:

Some of the ladies were inclined to pity the man, but their better nature got the best of them, and, though weeping, they spelled with vehemence, 't-r-a-n-s-m-a-g-n-i-f-i-c-a-n-d-u-b-a-n-d-a-n-j-u-a-l-i-t-y', transmagnificandubandanjuality – for this word they had treasured up in their hearts.

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:

Walks and Talks with the People. By Rev. Archibald Ross… The tendency to-day towards the language of conceit is not to be commended, as it keeps our conversationalists hovering on the ragged edge of transmagnificandubandualitarianism. (p. 8)

But it was still popular on the stage (Trenton Times, of 22 September 1899):

Mulryne's Casino, afternoon and evening. Singers, dancers and comedians. Special engagement of the Transmagnificantdubandanciality quartette. Also Prof. Willie Taog Otamot Nac, The Cotuffel Destroyer, The Great Yawollah, who juggles delf with as much ease and grace as child does his toy whip. (p. 1)

By 1902 (15 November) a correspondent writing to the New York Times tried to call a halt to all of this frivolity:

Long Words in the English Language. To the Editor of The New York Times… 'Transmagnificandubantiality' is a hybrid that was stuttered some years ago on the vaudeville stage, but as it undoubtedly emanated from the intellect of a valetudinarianistic-hypochondriac, it’s not worth considering. (p. 8)

It was a losing battle. Even boats carried the name (Newtown Register, 11 August):

In Greenport Harbor a few days ago, a long, narrow craft, carrying one sail, loomed up. But of all her peculiarities the one which nearly dumbfounded old sailors who scanned the boat, was the name which was painted in a scroll on the bow: 'Transmagnificandanuality'. (p. 2)

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):

Philippo Croneo, The Red House, Gilabbeyo, and after it, in pencil, the strange entry, Je souffre tant, O Jésus, and on the back fly-page a list of long words such as labyrinth, simultaneous, or homologation, with his favourite hard word, which he possibly invented, transbansmagnificanslansubstantuality. (p. 19)

And the Kerryman of 10 April 1954 reminds us that the term was by no means exclusively remembered by writers:

In my joyful schooldays we liked big words. The time-honoured test among ourselves for a scholar who came from another school was to ask him to spell 'transmagnificunranmandanduality', that fine old late-nineteenth-century word which was to be found written on the fly-leaf of so many reading books of the period. (p. 8)

Whatever his purpose in the Proteus episode, Joyce was part of a great tradition in incorporating the jaw-breaking contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality in Ulysses.

John Simpson

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