"Slide down my cellar door"

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In a 2010 NYT “On Language” column, Grant Barrett traced the claim that “cellar door” is the most beautiful phrase in English back as far as 1905 1903. I posted on the phrase a few years ago ("The Romantic Side of Familiar Words"), suggesting that there was a reason why linguistic folklore fixed  on that particular phrase, when you could make the same point with other pedestrian expressions like linoleum or oleomargarine:

…The undeniable charm of the story — the source of the enchantment that C. S. Lewis reported when he saw cellar door rendered as Selladore — lies the sudden falling away of the repressions imposed by orthography … to reveal what Dickens called "the romantic side of familiar things." … In the world of fantasy, that role is suggested literally in the form of a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a brick wall at platform 9¾. Cellar door is the same kind of thing, the expression people use to illustrate how civilization and literacy put the primitive sensory experience of language at a remove from conscious experience.

But that doesn't explain why the story emerged when it did. Could it have had to do with the song "Playmates," with its line "Shout down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door"? There's no way to know for sure, but the dates correspond, and in fact those lines had an interesting life of their own…

"Playmates" was a big hit for Philip Wingate and Henry W. Petrie in in 1894,  in an age swilling in lachrymose sentimentality about childhood. The original lyrics were:

Say, say, oh playmate,
Come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three,
Climb up my apple tree.
Shout down my rain barrel,
Slide down my cellar door,
And we'll be jolly friends forevermore.

Wingate and Petrie followed it up in the same year with an even more popular sequel, “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” which containted the phrase “You’ll be sorry when you see me sliding down our cellar door." The song figures a couple of times in the 1981 Warren Beatty movie Reds, most unforgettably as sung by Peggy Lee.

In various forms, “slide down my cellar door” became a kind of catchphrase to suggest innocent friendship. In an 1896 letter to a friend, the poet Vaughan Moody wrote “Are n’t [sic] you going to speak to me again? Is my back-yard left irredeemably desolate? Have your rag dolls and your blue dishes said inexorable adieu to my cellar-door? The once melodious rain barrel answers hollow and despairing to my plaints….”

More generally, “You shan’t slide down my cellar door,” and the like were invoked to suggest childish truculence. Google Books and Newspaperarchive turn up numerous hits, which don’t tail off until the 1930s or so.

I would not let an operator that did not have a card, carry my lunch basket or slide down my cellar door: not to say give him a "square" or fix him for a ride over the road. ‪Trans-Communicator, 1895

Commenting on a recent press dispatch Spain has refused the customary permission to the British garrison at Gibraltar to play polo and golf on Spanish territory, the Baltimore Sun says : — " This suggests the stern retaliatory methods of childhood : ' You shan't play in my back yard, you shan't slide down my cellar door.'  National Review, 1898

If you see my friend Prince Krapotpin tell him I should be glad to have him holler down my rain barrel or slide down my cellar door any time. It is a hard thing to be a czar. Oak Park (IL) Argus, 1901

William Waldorf Astor seems to have carried into maturity the youthful feelings so beautifully expressed in ballads of the " you can't slide down my cellar door " school. Munsey’s magazine, 1901

And Greece has said to Roumania, "You can't slide down my cellar-door any more." Religious Telescope, 1906

I am not desirous of having him slide down my cellar door. So far as I am concerned he can stay in his own back-yard, his own puddle or whatever his habitat may be. Louisiana Conservation Review, 1940

The Abbe was gentle and courteous, not to say whimsical, and the very soul of cheerfulness, cordiality, and hospitality, but the blunt fact remained that he wouldn't play ball in my back lot or slide down my cellar door. Wine Journeys 1949

That’s the last instance of the phrase that I can find where it's used that way. The song “Playmates” enjoyed a renewed popularity when it was recorded by Kay Kyser in 1940 and of course remains popular as a children’s clapping song today. (Willie Nelson recorded a version a version a few years ago.) Notably, Kyser substituted “look down my rain barrel” for “shout down my rain barrel,” the acoustic charms of rain barrels having faded from memory along with the containers themselves, even as sloping exterior cellar doors were becoming scarce. A 1968 article in the Lima (Ohio) News began:

“Shout down my rain barrel, Slide down my cellar door, And we'll be jolly friends forever more.”   Modern kids would have a hard time making friends that way, for gone are the rain barrels and outside cellar doors. Lima (Ohio) News 1968

Could the songs have been the immediate inspiration for the claim that “cellar door” is the most beautiful phrase in the English language? Well, the dates are suggestive, particularly given that the phrase was literally in air when the  claim first emerged,  and occasionally, no doubt,  mondagreenized into something else (the way later generations often transform "rain barrel" to "rainbow"). And I think it counts for something that the perception of the phrase's beauty requires a regressive capacity, as I put it in the earlier post, to "transcend not just its semantics but its orthography, to recover the pre-alphabetic innocence that comes when we let 'the years of reading fall away,' in Auden's phrase, and attune ourselves with sonorities that are hidden from the ear behind the overlay of writing"—that is, you have assume, as the songs ask you to, a child's point of view.

But this account of the origin will be have be left speculative—unless, or course, someone digs up a pre-1894 citation for the claim, in which case the theory is toast.

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61 Comments »

  1. Keith Ivey said,

    March 16, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

    Is the perception of beauty in "cellar door" related to the perceiver's rhoticity?

  2. kf8 said,

    March 16, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

    Wikipedia shows lots of mentions of Cellar door, including Tolkien, might be funny/interesting to read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellar_door

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    March 16, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    A version of "Playmates" is on "The Little Giant," the first album the bebop tenor sax player Johnny Griffin recorded as leader. The version he plays includes an eight-bar "bridge" but I don't know if it corresponds to additional lines in the lyric. (The lyric above takes 16 measures in the song.)

    GN. I don't know if there was a bridge on Petrie/Wingate's version (probably, plus an intro). But the bridge on Griffin's version corresponds to the Kay Kyser recording, which is really the source of all modern versions of the song. It goes with lyrics:

    She couldn't come out and play,
    It was a sunny day
    With tearful eye, she breathed a sigh
    And I could hear her say, "I'm sorry playmate…" etc.

  4. Grumpy Old Man said,

    March 16, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

    Harry Golden, a columnist of the '60s, wrote that "cellar door" was the most mellifluous phrase in the English language. Golden was famed for his "vertical negro plan" and other spoofs of the segregationist South.

  5. Sharon Goetz said,

    March 16, 2014 @ 7:03 pm

    During the early 1980s in Los Angeles, age-mates and I knew something like the canonical version (cellar door but no rain barrel) as well as an inversion:

    Say say my enemy
    Come out and fight with me
    And bring your [?? memory fails]
    Climb up my acid tree
    Slide down my razor blade
    into my jail door
    And we'll be enemies
    Forever more

  6. Martha said,

    March 16, 2014 @ 7:57 pm

    Apparently I learned it wrong. We always sang it "Slide down my rainbow into my cellar door."

  7. Cindy said,

    March 16, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

    @Martha….That's how I learned it, too.

  8. Victoria Simmons said,

    March 16, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

    Martha– The song apparently passed into children's folklore, and is cited as such in "Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood" (1995), by Josepha Sherman and T.K.F. Weisskopf, pp 99-100. Song parodies are of course very common in children's lore. The authors apparently weren't aware that it began life as a commercial song, but they do find it so saccharine for a children's rhyme that they wonder if it was written by adults for children. Their folk version has the rainbow:

    Ceecee, my playmate,
    Come out and play with me.
    And bring your dollies three,
    Climb up my apple tree.
    Slide down my rainbow
    Into my cellar door.
    And we'll be jolly friends
    Forever more, more, [I suppose ad infinitum is assumed]
    Shut the door.

    [collected from kids aged 9 and 13 in 1994 in Ontario, Canada]

    It's not surprising in a society where people don't have rain barrels any more that the phrase should morph into the eggcorn 'rainbow.' 'Cellar door' makes more sense to late 20th century ears, and perhaps movies such as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Arsenic and Old Lace" help keep the concept of a sloped cellar door alive. My mother taught me the song in the sixties with the rain barrel and the cellar door; her own mother was of the right vintage to have learned it when it was a popular parlor song.

    Sherman and Weisskopf also report a parody version, different from Sharon Goetz's:

    Say, say, my vampire,
    Come out and bite me.
    And bring your bats three,
    Climb up my graveyard tree,
    And slide down my tombstone
    Into my coffin door.
    And we'll be blood-sucking vampires
    Forever more, more,
    (pause)
    More, more, more.

    [collected in Georgia in 1971-72]

    It scans so badly it makes me wonder if it has changed tunes.

  9. Mar Rojo said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 4:00 am

    Or this nostalgia-filled song:

    CHORUS:
    Barefoot days, when we were just a kid
    Barefoot days, O boy, the things we did
    We'd go down to the shady brook
    With a bent pin for a hook
    We'd fish all day an' fish till night
    But the darn ole fish refuse to bite
    How we'd slide down some ole cellar door
    We'd slide an' slide, till our pants got tore
    You know, that slidin' down th cellar door
    Make your clothes tear, an' you'll get a lot'a splinters
    But you must'n tell where
    O boy, what joy, we had in barefoot days

    http://www.rienzihills.com/SING/B/barefootdays.htm

  10. Mar Rojo said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 4:04 am

    Here too: http://londonbobby.com/lblyric.htm#bare

  11. Jen said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 4:34 am

    Mine (in Edinburgh) went something like:

    Cee cee oh play me
    Come out and play with me
    And bring your dolly too
    And baby kangaroo
    Slide down the drainpipe
    And through the cellar door
    And we'll be jolly friends
    For ever more more SHUT THAT DOOR

    I'm intrigued to find out that it has words that make sense!

  12. GeorgeW said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 7:02 am

    I must admit complete ignorance of this. Maybe the fact of growing up in Florida where there are no cellars would be factor. Out of curiosity, what is so alluring about sliding down a cellar door? The act? What might occur out of sight in the darkness of a cellar?

    Why is the phrase considered beautiful? Nostalgia for childhood games? Sound combination? Frankly, I find nothing unusually appealing out it (70ish, SoAmE).

  13. Spacerat said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 7:05 am

    I am Australian (and nearly 40 years old) and I have never heard of this verse at all! Now I'm curious about geographical distribution and children's folklore.

  14. jdmartinsen said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 7:13 am

    @Sharon Goetz: The parody version I learned when I was a kid in Maryland in the 80s was:

    See see my enemy
    I will not play with you
    My dollies have the flu
    They will throw up on you
    Slide down my razor blade
    Into my dungeon door
    And there I'll lock you up
    Forever more

    "Dungeon door" doesn't have the mellifluousness of "cellar door", but maybe that's the childhood nostalgia talking…

  15. Rhoda said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 8:46 am

    In 1970's Manchester (England) it was a clapping song, only different by:
    See see my playmate,
    And
    Climb down the drain pipe, and to the cellar door.
    And then there was an extra hand pat and chant of 'Shut that door!' which can only be from a TV presenter's catchphrase of the day.
    I had no idea it was such an old song though!

  16. Rhoda said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 8:55 am

    Ha, so Jen in Edinburgh had the same SHUT THAT DOOR as we did in Manchester. I'd love to know how that happened.

  17. Malie said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 9:19 am

    When I was at primary school (Devon, late 90s) it was:

    See see, my playmate
    I can't come and play with you
    My sister's got the flu
    Chicken-pox and measles too
    But come to my rainbow
    And through the cellar door
    And we'll be bestest friends for ever more, more, more.
    Shut that door!

    Somewhere along the way the friend-one and the enemy-one seem to have got a bit jumbled…

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    I would tend to assume the original notion involves sliding down the exterior of a closed (and characteristically sloped) cellar door, not sliding down into the mysterious darkness of the cellar itself? I think '70's kids, at least who grow up in the northeast (might have been different in Florida or other parts of the country where cellars/basements were themselves rare due to water-table issues or whatever), were familiar with that older style of cellar door not just from old movies from some real-life examples unless they lived and moved entirely in neighborhoods where all the housing stock was recently constructed. Rain barrels were more thoroughly obsolete.

  19. cameron said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 10:04 am

    The Wikipedia article quotes a 1903 novel called Gee-Boy which points out that no association of ideas is involved in the perceived loveliness of "cellar door", since actual cellar doors are solely American. If cellar doors of the American type were not a feature of British house construction (and I'm not sure I believe that) then perhaps British speakers of the turn of the last century were introduced to the phrase by that song . . .

  20. Emma said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 10:04 am

    I'm a bit confused, because the sources I'm turning up pretty uniformly say that "I Don't Want To Play In Your Yard" was indeed by Wingate and Petrie in 1894, but that "Playmates" was a 1940s original, with melody stolen from a song called "Iola" and lyrics adapted from "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard". ASCAP backs this up– it's got "I Don't Want To Play In Your Yard" listed for Petrie, but not anything like "Playmates".

    See, e.g., http://parlorsongs.com/issues/2003-7/thismonth/feature.php:
    His first published song, I'm Mamma's Little Girl was written in 1894. Later that same year, Petrie published a song titled, I Don't Want To Play In Your Yard (scorch format) which was a huge hit. The following year he tried to "answer" his own hit with You Can't Play In Our Yard Anymore; it flopped.

    For the Iola claim:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Py1F22liT1M
    https://www.pdinfo.com/PD-Song-List/PD-Song-List-Best-I.php
    1906 – m. Charles L. Johnson, w. James O'Dea N – The chorus of Iola is the melody to the 1940 hit Playmates by Saxie Dowell. Charles L. Johnson sued and there was an out of court settlement. Playmates words were likely stolen from I Don't Want To Play In Your Yard, 1894.

    GN. This could be right; there are a couple of web pages that ascribe "playmate" to Petrie, but nothing that looks authoritative.* And I'm having trouble finding anything before 1940 that references the "Come out and play with me" lyrics. So Dowell could have written it, which means that the pre-1940 "cellar door" references are all to "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard." So, for that matter, would be Dowell's mention of sliding down the cellar door and hollering into the rain barrel, which he obviously didn't come up with independently. That would make his lyrics a reverse-engineering of a prequel to the earlier song. But the connection to the "most beautiful word" story wouldn't be affected — it could have arisen out of either song.
    *Another one gives the "Come out and play with me" lyrics but assigns them to "I don't want to play in your yard," for example.

  21. Stan Polanski said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    J. W. Brewer is right about the closed, sloped cellar door. Most of the older houses in my home town in New England had them, but we called them "bulkheads", never "cellar doors", and yes, we slid down them on our bottoms. Search "cellar door bulkhead" in Google Images for visuals. Strange as it seems to me now, it never occurred to my childish brain that the cellar door in the song was the bulkhead of my everyday experience. When we sang the line in Playmate I would picture a vague, unsatisfactory scene of a kid somehow clasping himself to a vertical wooden door and inching down, trying to avoid splinters. Is there some generalization to be made here about a lack of flexibility in children's application of labels?

  22. davep said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    GeorgeW said: "Out of curiosity, what is so alluring about sliding down a cellar door?"

    It's a makeshift slide.

    J. W. Brewer said: "I would tend to assume the original notion involves sliding down the exterior of a closed (and characteristically sloped) cellar door, not sliding down into the mysterious darkness of the cellar itself?"

    Yes.

  23. Dan T. said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    Fantasy authors do seem to have a liking for proper names with a -dor ending. Tolkien had Mordor, Gondor, and Eriador, while the Harry Potter world has Gryffindor and Dumbledore.

  24. Robert Coren said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 11:09 am

    @Dan T.: Well, in fact, in Tolkien's world (n)dor was the Sindarin element meaning "land".

  25. Robert Coren said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    There's a basement-level space on Craigie Street in Cambridge, MA, that has been home to a series of restaurants; one of them was called "Celador", which was explicitly a play on "cellar door".

  26. Rodger C said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    Tolkien said somewhere that he was originally inspired by the sound of "Labrador."
    GN. That's an interesting point. Tolkein made that connection in a letter:"The element (n)dor 'land', probably owes something to say such names as Labrador (a name that might as far as style and structure goes be Sindarin)." The fact that Labrador actually comes from the name of one of the Portuguese explorers who mapped the region's coast underscores the Romance substrate in Tolkein's fictionalized Celtic, with the echoes of both audible in /selador/.

  27. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 11:51 am

    @Sharon Goetz, @jdmartinsen,

    Our version, in the 1970s, was:

    My little enemy,
    Come out and fight with me,
    And bring your monsters three,
    Climb up my [vampire?] tree,
    Slide down my blood spout,
    Into my dungeon door,
    And we'll be jolly enemies,
    Forevermore, forevermore.

    I've thought that was interesting for a kid's idea of what an opposite is. Also no one thought to replace "jolly."

    There was also a version that went, "I cannot play today, the boy across the way," and ended "it was a boy." (It was otherwise G-rated and very obscure, otherwise.)

  28. mae said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 11:53 am

    FWIW:
    Rain barrels are back — used to collect water for garden use. My neighbor's is so thoroughly frozen now that I doubt if you could shout down it — maybe next summer.

    Here's a link selling them as "A great way to garden and conserve water, a precious natural resource. Portable, lightweight rain barrel collects up to 51 gallons of water you can access by spigot or disperse for irrigation."

  29. MaryKaye said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    Growing up in Seattle, USA, we had roughly the version given here (with "climb down my rain barrel/ Into my cellar door"–I don't think Seattle ever had external cellar doors so we had no idea what to make of this). There was then a response:

    So sorry playmate
    I cannot play with you
    My dollies have the flu
    The mumps and measles too
    I have no rain barrel
    They've locked the cellar door
    But we'll be jolly friends
    For ever more, more, more-more-more.

    These were two person clapping game songs, with the final repetitions on "more" being very emphatic two-hand claps with partner. I'm surprised that in origins it was apparently not a clapping game song? It seems deeply pointless without the clapping. Does anyone recall this as a stand-alone song from their own childhood?

  30. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

    Now that I think of it, in Northeast Phila., it wasn't only a clapping song, it had the most elaborate clap sequence of any of the songs we knew (except maybe the Oreo song, which I never managed to learn).

  31. dazeystarr said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    Picking up on Dan T.'s comment about fantasy authors, Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea archipelago includes an island called Selidor. As her world's westernmost isle (not to mention the abode of dragons), it's a highly romanticized place, to the extent that Earthsea's equivalent of "Once upon a time" is "As long ago as forever and as far away as Selidor".

    Given that LeGuin, along with many other fantasy writers, demonstrates a fascination with the power of language, I doubt the name is purely coincidental.

  32. CuConnacht said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

    Queens, NY, 1950s had "Climb down my rain barrel/slide down my cellar door," like Seattle. We had cellar doors in Jackson Heights, but climbing down the rain barrel, and indeed the rain barrel itself, was a puzzle.

    "Celadore" would be the most romantic spelling, if you ask me. Suggestive of Celadon in the commedia dell'arte.

  33. Jtgw said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

    Any thoughts on the notion itself that there is something uniquely euphonic about (non-rhotic) "cellar door"? I'm guessing that the open-syllable structure has something to do with it, and I've heard similar claims about other languages thought to be "beautiful" to the ear, i.e. you want open syllables, few fricative sounds (and no dorsal fricatives), no consonant clusters etc.

  34. hector said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

    Apparently I grew up in a vacuum. I've never heard any version of this song before, and am mystified as to why "cellar door" should be considered beautiful. As a child, I thought of the cellar door as the entryway to the dankness, slithering insects, and unnameable horrors lurking in the basement.

  35. Julie C said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

    In Iowa, we had "slide down my rain barrel, into my cellar door." I at least was familiar with rain barrels as well as cellar doors that either had the sloping door or steps/a ramp down to a vertical door, and it made complete sense to me that if you wanted to play in an apple tree with dollies, you'd also slide through a rain barrel to the cellar.

  36. Karen said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    I don't know that song from childhood, but I did know about cellar doors, so the image was clear. But to me growing up in the 80s and 90s, that sort of door had strong connotations of decrepitness, so my first thought on reading the line was "ouch" as my mental image of such a door is either rusty or splintery depending on its material.

  37. maidhc said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

    MaryKaye: Rain barrels are illegal in Seattle. The state of Washington has a law against the collection of rainwater by property-owners. I'm not sure how far this goes back.

  38. Ø said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

    I heard the song from my mother as a kid. I hardly saw any sloped cellar doors as a kid, but I figured out that that's what it referred to. When I heard the cliche about this phrase being considered as sounding exceptionally beautiful, I assumed it had something to do with French "d' or".

  39. Martha said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

    Yeah, what Victoria Simmons posted was how I learned it, other than the first line was "Say say oh playmate." Our alternative version was

    Say say oh enemy
    Come out and fight with me
    And bring your monsters three
    Fall outta my apple tree
    Slide down my razorblade
    Into my cellar door
    And I will lock you in
    Forevermore, more
    Lock the door

    It's funny, although what I have always envisioned when singing this song was those angled cellar doors, when I originally read this post, I had absolutely no idea what it meant to slide down a cellar door. I've never actually seen one in person and it didn't occur to me that one could be used as a slide. Well, and also, in my version of the song, and therefore the way I was imagining the other versions, the doors are open, so you couldn't slide down them anyway.

    MaryKaye, the song also seems pointless to me without the clapping. I don't know that I ever saw occasion to sing it without doing the clapping.

    Oh, and by the way, rain barrels are illegal in Bend, OR, also. I guess there's some rule that any rain that falls belongs to the city or something. At least that's what I've been told.

  40. Victoria Simmons said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 2:15 am

    There have been laws against harvesting rainwater in a number of states for quite a while, but in general the laws are becoming more lenient.

    http://www.enlight-inc.com/blog/?p=1036

  41. mollymooly said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 5:02 am

    "which can only be from a TV presenter's catchphrase of the day."

    To supplement Rhoda's comment for those who can't Google: Larry Grayson presented "Shut That Door!" and retained the catchphrase when he took over "The Generation Game" from Bruce Forsyth.

  42. Graeme said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 6:08 am

    'Rain barrel' is completely foreign to this Australian's eyes and ears. But I admit it's more euphonious than our 'water tank' and the Brit's 'water butt'!

  43. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 8:07 am

    There are claims–how reliable I can't say–that the statement was made by an Italian, or specifically Mazzini, or by an Italian known to Margaret Fuller (who knew Mazzini):
    http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1002C&L=ADS-L&P=R3824&I=-3&d=No+Match%3BMatch%3BMatches
    Here's a slightly earlier (than the above, Jan. 1921) claim for an Italian:
    http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101078190236;view=1up;seq=46
    col. 3 end of "Magic"
    Minor note: the date to beat for the assertion is not 1905 but 1903.
    GN You're right — Grant's first citation for it was from 1903–I corrected it.

    The Fuller and Mazzini attributions strike me as pretty far-fetched. Both are reported nth-hand a a distance of half a century or more from the event, with no intervening record for it. Lit. Digest cite Terhune, who was born after Mazzini's death and would have picked it up god-knows-where. The Fuller attribution begins ""Is there not a story concerned with Margaret Fuller…" never a reassuring sign.

    More to the point, a large proportion of the numerous stories Grant and you have collected attribute the claim to generally Spanish, French, and Italian speakers, usually second- to nth-hand (though writing 50+ years after the claim first surfaced, Barzun ascribes it to a Japanese student of his). The ubiquity of these attributions makes all of them seem implausible. Since the point of the story is that the beauty of "cellar door" is concealed from Anglophones by its meaning and orthography, it makes dramatic sense to attribute the insight to a speaker of another language who happens on the phrase and isn't distracted by those things — often in fact, one who speaks little or no English him- or herself. And so much the better if the foreigner's language is one we deem mellifluous, so as to add to his or her authority. But why would one assume that some one of these stories has to be true?

    In fact, the whole fable is implausible from beginning to end — the Spanish admiral who selects to extol, among all things, an English phrase that struck his ear as sounding like his word for "hospital orderly" or the larger premise itself. It’s like being told that an international panel of musicologists had definitively determined that the most beautiful song ever written was “My Sharona.”

  44. BZ said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

    Is there something wrong with me that I can't imagine how "Slide down my cellar door" could possibly sound innocent to an adult (or even a teenager)? Then again, I've never heard this song, as a child or ever, so I obviously have no nostalgia factor. The first time I heard of "celador" as something special was when "Who wants to be a Millionaire" premiered in the US.

  45. MaryKaye said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    I really think this meme originated in a non-rhotic region: "celador" is somewhat pleasing to my ear, but my (NW US rhotic) pronunciation of "cellar door" doesn't seem pretty to me at all.

    Incidentally, my D&D group used to fight over whether Tolkien would have pronounced words like "celador" with an initial "k." I remember my startlement when I finally saw how the GM was writing the name of my elven arch-nemesis: I had "Khyteron" throughout my notes, he had "Citeron." I objected strenuously that "Citeron" was more like a car than an archvillain, and since I was the campaign chronicler, I had the last word.

  46. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    dazeystarr: Le Guin admires Tolkien—see "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie"—and she's apparently written an essay on the rhythm of Tolkien's prose. I've long taken "Selidor" as an homage to him. Its being the westernmost island and the abode of dragons, which you mention, must be part of that.

    MaryKaye: I think rhotic "cellar door" is pretty euphonious.

  47. Brett said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

    @MaryKaye: In Appendix E, Tolkien says explicitly, "The High-Elven Quenya has been spelt as much like Latin as its sounds allowed. For this reason c has been preferred to k in both Eldarin languages…. C always has the value k even before e and i: celeb 'silver' should be pronounced as keleb."

    I can't say I care for the sound of "Kirdan the Shipwright."

  48. Robert said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

    If I recall correctly the Elvish c in Tolkien is pronounced as a k. So Celeborn is pronounced Keleborn.
    As to the beauty of cellar door I wonder if some element of it may be the presence of the mellifluous liquid "l". I'm reminded of Dennis Potter's statement in The Singing Detective that the single most beautiful world in the English language is elbow.

  49. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 7:27 am

    It may turn out that attributions involving Mazinni and Fuller are "far-fetched" (see response in six comments above). But if we take 1903 as the first year so far known that the claim "surfaced," then it was not "50+ years after the claim first surfaced." It would be 50+ years after the death of Fuller in 1850. (Mazzini died in 1872.) It may be that the song quoted above led to the sound claims, though the case would be stronger were anyone to present the song lyric and the claim in the same text earlier than this blog post, which, in relation to the song and the claim could be called 50+ years later.

    GN. The claim in question is that Mazzini was the source of the observation. If so he would have said it before he died in 1872– or if he said it to Fuller, before she died in 1850. That claim — about Mazzini — first shows up as an nth-hand ascription between 50 and 70 years after the last date he could have made the remark, with no intervening reports of it. Inasmuch as the observation has been laid to indefinite numbers of speakers of French, Spanish, and Italian, there's no reason at all to credit this particular story.

    My thesis about the song (and here I mean "I dont want to play…") is just that it even as it provided a common cliche, it put the phrase "cellar door" literally in the air, sweetly sung–and quite likely in a non-rhotic form, following the vocal conventions of the day. I wouldn't expect to see anybody make the connection explicit, all the more if they were going to tell a story about having heard the claim from some foreigner. Though as to how else all those Italians and Spaniards would be familiar with the phrase…

  50. Robert Coren said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 9:31 am

    One of the many useless facts I picked up from reading The History of Middle-Earth (Christopher Tolkien's multi-volume compilations of his father's drafts, notes, essays, etc.) is that Tolkien originally spelled all those Elvish names with K, and changed them to C shortly before publication because he wanted them to look more "Latin". So it's clear that those c's were always intended to be pronounced /k/.

  51. Robert Coren said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    A textbook on language that I remember (vaguely, to be sure) from 8th grade said that someone had claimed that "cellar door" and "cuspidor" were among the most beautiful words in English. (By way of contrast with "beautiful" words for unbeautiful things, there was a suggestion that the German Schmetterling "butterfly" was an ugly word for a beautiful thing. Opinions may differ on this point.)

  52. A said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 3:45 pm

    I don't remember exactly where I learned these, but I sang them in the early 90s:

    Say, say, oh playmate,
    come out and play with me
    and bring your dollies three,
    climb up my apple tree.
    Slide down my rainbow
    and through my cellar door,
    and we'll be the best of friends,
    forever more, more, shut the door.

    Say, say, archenemy,
    come out and fight with me
    and bring your warriors three,
    climb up my sycamore* tree.
    Slide down my sidewalk
    and through my dungeon door,
    and we'll be archenemies
    forever more, more, lock the door.

    (*I was unreliably informed by the friend who taught me the latter version that sycamore trees have very scratchy bark. However, 'slide down my sidewalk' is sufficiently brutal. We did know what cellar doors were, if only from movies like The Wizard of Oz.)

  53. A said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    Oh! Even if we didn't know what 'cellar doors' were, some of my friends called the basement the 'cellar.' We would have just assumed that a cellar door was the same as the door to the basement.

  54. John Cowan said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

    Tolkien actually uses the word Dumbledores in his light-hearted poem "Errantry", in the line "He battled with the Dumbledores, the Hummerhorns and Honeybees". It's an archaic word for 'bumblebees'.

  55. John Cowan said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

    Oops, saved too soon. In Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series, there is an island called Selidor, the westernmost island of the West Reach. Nobody lives there except the occasional dragon, and it is mentioned in the traditional opening of Earthsea fairy-tales: "As long ago as forever, and as far away as Selidor".

  56. etv13 said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    The version I learned in Tustin, California in about 1970 went:

    Say, say oh playmate,
    Come out and play with me
    And bring your LSD
    Climb up my hippie tree
    Slide down my beer cans
    Into my cellar door,
    And we'll be jolly friends,
    Forever more more more.

    On the topic of ugly words for pretty things: pellucid.

  57. Robert Coren said,

    March 24, 2014 @ 10:30 am

    @etv13: And so this very morning, the local paper had a review of a concert (which we had attended) in which the sound of the chorus was characterized as "massive yet pellucid", causing my husband to turn to me and say: "Pellucid? What does that mean?"

  58. Ryan Murray-Rudegeair said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 11:59 am

    Until now I only was aware of "Playmates" as a song by Pearls Before Swine on their 1967 album One Nation Underground, and had no idea it wasn't original to them. In Tom Rapp's glorious lisp, the lyrics to that version are:

    Well, playmate, come out and play with me
    And bring your dollies three, climb up my apple tree.

    Holler down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door
    And we'll be jolly friends forever more.

    Well, playmate, I can't come play with you
    My dolly's got the flu, boo hoo hoo, hoo hoo hoo.

    I got no rain barrel, I got no cellar door
    But we'll be jolly friends forever more.

  59. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 5:29 am

    "The Euphony of Cellar Door" was also discussed, including the 1903 text, by Michael Gilleland back in Nov. 2009:
    http://laudatortemporisacti.blogspot.com/2009/11/euphony-of-cellar-door.html

  60. Colin Fine said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 3:43 am

    I've never encountered the song or a sloping cellar door. I was half way through reading the comments before I managed to construct a picture of what on earth "slide down my cellar door" might look like.

  61. l. j. welch said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

    I remember my Mother singing this song to me over 70 years ago (I know the time period because of remembering the time period that we lived in a certain house). At that time we lived on a farm many miles from a town and did not have any modern conveniences. Rural electric had not as yet come to the area and with no electricity available, our water was rope-drawn from a cistern. We had a garden, and, yes, we collected water in a rain barrel to supplement our water supply because water was precious! Cellars for the most part were for the purpose of storing root vegetables and apples, home-canned fruits and vegetables, and were just a small dug-out area under the house or from a hill or mound near the house. The cellars in the Illinois rural community where I lived were very small–the insides were certainly not a big enough area for playmates to play in! (Families that lived in areas that had frequent strong storms and tornadoes may have dug out larger cellars for themselves that would also double as a place for their family to run to for storm protection, but those larger ones were not typical to my childhood experience.) The slant of the cellar door or doors was so that during heavy rain, the rain would run off of them and minimize dampness to the cellar's contents. I was born on the heels of The Great Depression and there were hardly any toys inside or outside my home throughout my growing up years. I can certainly understand from my own experience, because of lack of toys and playground equipment those many years ago, the line in the song where one playmate calls out to the other playmate the invitation: "(come) slide down my cellar door"!

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