PICTURE THE FRENZIED STUDENTS as the professor passes out the syllabus. Already nervous about the novel-a-week reading load, on top of a 10-page annotated research paper due in week 7, then there’s this: atop Office Hours, atop Course Objectives, a 15-letter tongue twister (which they are likely seeing in its entirety for the first time) which they have to now correctly pronounce every day of the semester - the professor’s name! In a land where terse, monosyllabic surnames like Smith, Brown, and Jones are the norm, the scene is set for Filipina-East Indian-American poet-professor, Aimee Nezhukumatathil‘s poem, "Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia: fear of long words."
In her poem, recently appearing in the on-line journal, Slate, Nezhukumatathil plays shrink, using polarity as the key device to doctor her students’ phobia of the long word, and hopefully in the process, to bridge a cultural gap as well. By employing opposing poles in tone and content, Nezhukumatathil deconstructs the foundation on which her class’ fear is built.
To counter her students’ initial reaction of fear, the poet uses opposite tones of calm and humor. The opening language is exceedingly passive and non-threatening: "I secretly beg… Don’t be afraid of me." It then grows more disarming, "I know/ my last name… is chopped off or probably misspelled -/or both. I can’t help it." The poet then goes so far as to present herself on the students’ side, almost advocating their fear: "I know the panic/ of too many consonants…”
And just as the students are getting comfortable, Nezhukumatathil gives them a surprise tickle, extending this phonetic metaphor into something hyperbolic, claustrophobic, and absurd: "I know the panic/ of too many consonants rubbed up/ against each other, no room for vowels/ to fan some air into the room of a box/ marked Instructor." Having now invoked the universal language of the humor, the poet playfully asks, "You want something/ to startle you?" and administers her next treatment with polarity in content.
Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is founded on two qualities—magnitude (FEAR = LARGE), and the unknown (FEAR = UNKNOWN). Now in stanzas 4, 5, and 6, the poet chooses content to directly debunk this. She instead suggests fear to be found in the miniscule: be afraid of an unexpected "small, black toad/ who kicks and blinks his cold eye" in your cupped hand; of nanoscopic "X-rays/ for your teeth or lung," (and what they may reveal); or of the barely 2-millimeter-as-adult sized "money spiders/ tiptoeing across your face while you sleep." Likewise, in these three images, the poet equates fear to the familiar: a common "small black toad" rather than, say, a lethal Kihansi spray toad; a routine "X-ray for the teeth or lung" rather than an experimental lobotomy; and an everyday "money spider" as opposed to a Venezuelan Red Stripe tarantula.
Approaching the end of the poem and the end of her prescribed treatments, Nezhukumatathil prepares to introduce the very agent which caused the phobia in the first place—long words. She first resumes her non-threatening tone, "Don’t be afraid/ of me, my last name, what language I speak" just before unleashing a flurry of hyper-syllabic, exotic images in stanzas 7 and 8. Earlier in the poem, these would have surely caused a hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobic attack, but now the words can be fully experi-enced in their full sensual pleasure. She promises to help them see "the gleam/ of the beak of a mohawked cockatiel"; "sweeps of ocean, full of tiny dinoflagellates oozing green light"; and "dark gatherings/ of toadfish and comical shrimp, just when [they] think [they] are alone…" She makes the exotic endearing.
If we divide the poem into four sections (each, a tercet-quatrain pair) we see the poet consciously increases the students’ tolerance for long words (defined for this purpose as words having > 9 letters) on a gradual basis as the poem advances:
Section I (2): misspelled, consonants
Section II (2): Instructor, something
Section III (2): pneumoultromononucleosis, tiptoeing
Section IV (5): cockatiel, luminescent, dinoflagellates, disturbed, gatherings
As the number of long words increases, it is worth noting that their complexity increases also (e.g., cockatiel and luminescent are considerably more complex than Instructor and something.) It is also worth noting that when the 10-syllable, 24-letter pneumoultromononucleosis suddenly appears in stanza 5, Nezhukumatathil tempers it by juxtaposing its two-syllable vernacular equivalent, "coal lung." By doing so, she suggests that all long words, even her serpentine 15-letter name might be simpler upon closer inspection - bi-syllabic, or , dare we say, human?
And as a final gift, without ever mentioning her surname in the text of the poem, Nezhukumatathil subtly approximates its cadence, its syllable-count, and its music in the phrase, "mohawked cockatiel." Without even realizing it, her students have confronted, survived, and even enjoyed this attack of long words.