Mary Poppins

The Biggest Word You Ever Heard

When I was young, my mother would drum words into my head night after night in preparation for the yearly spelling bee. Other kids struggled over “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Though you won’t find it in a bee, my biggest challenge was “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” When you’re eight, that’s a helluva big word.

In THE BOYS, the entertaining new documentary about the Sherman Brothers, Robert Sherman said he and his brother Richard don’t write “children’s songs,” they write “songs for children.” They don’t dummy down the lyrics for children and use them to teach kids new words. Take MARY POPPINS. For a family film, the music and lyrics are remarkably sophisticated.

“Suffragette.” “Fiduciary.” These are not words that pander to children. Even nonsensical words like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” sound real in the hands of these talented songwriters. Richard Sherman also said his father, Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman, told them to follow the three S’s when writing songs: make them simple, singable, and sincere.

With its steady rhythm and limited melodic range, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is certainly simple and singable. The performances of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke bring sincerity to the song, singing as if they knew the word their entire lives. Add “Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle ay” and Irwin Kostal’s sparkling orchestrations and spirited conducting and you have a hummable classic that has survived the last 45 years.

My earliest song memories are Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and The Seekers’ “Georgy Girl.” But no song takes me back to that goofy 8-year-old like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Whether it was my mother or the Sherman Brothers, those nights of drilling spelling bee words paid off. Spell Check is for the lazy.

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