Over time, English tends to mash words together into bigger words. “Baseball” used to be “base ball.” We got “toothbrush” the same way. Also “nevertheless” and “commonwealth” and “cheesecake.”
You’ll rarely see more than two or three words mashed together in everyday English. Elementary school kids who like to show off their word skills often latch on to “antidisestablishmentarianism,” though it’s a rare child who can tell you what was being disestablished and who was for or against that idea. (It has to do with the Church of England, if you want to look it up.)
If you get into the realms of medicine and chemistry, you can get some doozies, such as the lung disease pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.
English likes these mashups because it’s a Germanic language. But we’re pikers compared to the mother tongue. In theory, there is no limit to the number of German words that can be forged into a single unit. Whole numbers of less than a million can be single words, so 777,777 becomes siebenhundertsiebenundsiebzigtausendsiebenhundertsiebenundsiebzig.
If this all seems a bit overwhelming, let’s see how such a word is built.
We’ll start with a woman named Barbara. She makes a great rhubarb pie. It’s so famous that she’s known as Rhubarb Barbara. In German, rhubarb is “rhababer” and she’s known as Rhababerbarbara.
Rhababerbarbara figures out that she can make some money by selling her specialty, so she opens a bar. That’s right, the Rhubarb Barbara Bar, or Rhababerbarbarabar.
The place is a big hit, especially among a group of barbarians, or “barbaren.” They, of course, are the Rhababerbarbarabarbarbaren. Any self-respecting barbarian will have a beard, or “bärte.” You can see where this is going, right? The barbarians have a barber. The barber, after a long day of trimming beards, wants a beer. To get the beer, he goes to a bar.
And that’s how we get to a Rhababerbarbarabarbarbarenbartbarbierbierbar.
If you think it looks funny, you should hear it in the native tongue.