Antidisestablishmentarianism: Definition & Politics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

It's a word that we've all heard, but which very few of us can define. In this lesson, we'll learn about antidisestablishmentarianism and polish off your impressive body of knowledge.

Antidisestablishmentarianism

When you read this header, it may look like someone just mashed a bunch of letters on the keyboard, and that's what came out. Actually, it's a real word, and one that millions of schoolchildren actually know of due to its reputation as the longest word in the English dictionary. However, major dictionaries like Merriam-Webster do not even include antidisestablishmentarianism as a word because so few people actually know what it really means, and nobody uses it in their daily conversations. It's mostly used when talked about its curiosity as a long word. In fact, it's been argued that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, an even longer word, has more meaning than antidisestablishmentarianism (even though this is not in that dictionary either). Still, if we're going to brag about how long a word is, we might as well understand it.

Origins and Original Meaning

The word antidisestablishmentarianism can be traced back to the 19th century, when England was having something of a crisis about its traditions. Specifically, the role of the Church of England was coming under question. Traditionally, the Church of England was the official state religion of the United Kingdom, with the King serving as the ceremonial head of the religion.

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However, by the 19th century there were fewer and fewer countries that had an official state religion. The United States had famously abolished the practice of state religions back when it was founded, and that progressive idea was spreading around the world. The idea was that people should have the freedom to practice whatever faith they wanted, and that state religions prevented that.

So, let's break this down. The Church of England was the established state religion of the UK. The people who opposed state religions wanted to disestablish the Church of England. The people who opposed them were against disestablishment. They were antidisestablishmentarians. That's what antidisestablishmentarianism originally was: the opposition of disestablishing the Church of England as the state religion of the United Kingdom.

Antidisestablishmentarians opposed the opposition of the Church of England as the formal state religion
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Modern Uses

Antidisestablishmentarianism, in its original use, was only a big deal in the 19th century. Nobody actually uses the term like that anymore. However, it has remained in use to some degree. In modern parlance, antidisestablishmentarianism can generally mean one of two things. First, it can refer to any opposition of the disestablishment of any state religion, not just the Church of England in the UK.

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