I'm still noodling over Grant Barrett's "On Language" column in the New York Times the week before last, which tracked the recurring claim that cellar door is the most beautiful phrase in English. It was a model of dogged word-sleuthing, which took us from George Jean Nathan to Dorothy Parker to Norman Mailer and Donnie Darko (winnowed down, Grant said on the ADS list, from more than 80 citations for the story he collected). But the very breadth of the material raised questions that couldn't be addressed in that forum. What accounts for the enduring appeal of this claim in English linguistic folklore? And more specifically: is there a reason why everybody settles on cellar door in particular? I think there is, ultimately. Are you sitting comfortably?
At a first pass, claiming that cellar door is the most beautiful expression of English permits you to make a show of your aesthetic refinement. When you ask most people the question, after all, they’ll give you the names of the objects of sentimental attachment (mother, home), of worthy ideals (liberty, peace), or of conventionally “poetic” subjects (dawn, swan). Now these are genuinely aesthetic claims — “liberty is so dear to me that I thrill at very the sound of its name.” But for just that reason, it’s hard not to hear a certain self-congratulation in those choices, which is what wags are sending up when they answer the question with pointed philistinism: the most beautiful words in the language, various people have said, are really "check enclosed" or "it's benign," or simply — F. Scott Fitzgerald's response until he thought better of it — "money."
For the aesthete, by contrast, the question is an occasion to display a capacity to discern beauty in the names of prosaic things. It’s a classic ploy of conoisseurship, from the early collectors of Warhol and Oldenburg back to the seventeenth-century collectors who professed to prefer the bamboccianti paintings of Roman street life to works with historical or allegorical themes.
That's obviously part of the story, and it explains why the tellers of these stories sometimes make reference to experts who have validated the judgment as a scientific finding rather than a subjective judgment — the “famous linguist” who’s credited with the claim in Donnie Darko or the “committee of Language Hump-type professors,” that Norman Mailer ascribed it to in Why Are We in Vietnam? — on the popular assumption (you'll hear no contradiction from me) that we linguists have ways of finding these things out. Or the perception is credited to a foreigner who’s ignorant of the meaning of the term, which proves that the the beauty of cellar door rests on universal phonaesthetic principles.
But if that were all there is to it, there would be nothing to recommend cellar door over other expressions drawn from everyday life. Why didn't the popular fancy seize on cistern, for example (said to be Truman Capote's nomination)? Or Ring Lardner's gangrene, scam, and mange, which drive home the aesthetic autonomy hypothesis even more dramatically? For that matter, why not rag mop (or alternatively ragg mopp), the discovery of whose phonaesthetic charms exerted a profound influence on the genesis of rock n' roll, not to mention educational television?
There's a clue to the answer in Grant’s observation that “Sometimes, the loveliness of cellar door is thought to be more evident when the phrase is given a different spelling." He goes on to cite a remark of C. S. Lewis: “I was astonished when someone first showed that by writing cellar door as Selladore, one produces an enchanting proper name.” (Lewis's non-rhotic version of the phrase, of course, would have worked a lot better as the name of an fantasy kingdom than the version of someone from Wisconsin.) Tolkien made the same point when he said that the beauty of the phrase emerged most clearly when it was “dissociated from its sense (and its spelling).” To perceive the beauty of cellar door, that is, we have 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, to attune ourselves with sonorities that are hidden from the ear behind the overlay of writing.
But what happens when we strip cellar door down to its pristine phonetic bones, it turns out, is that it at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals, and open syllables with cardinal vowel nuclei — the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkein turned into a staple of fantasy fiction. (I think of the English teacher's line in Alan Bennett's The History Boys: "What I didn't want was to turn out boys who would talk in their middle age of a deep love of language and their love of words. 'Words,' said in that reverential way that is somehow… Welsh.") It's significant that the foreigner to whom the recognition of the beauty of cellar door is often credited in these stories is usually an Italian or "a Spanish lady," or occasionally a Japanese friend — but never a Fleming or a Czech.
These are the languages of the impulsive, passionate peoples of the South or the edenic past –- and also, by the by, the "feminine" languages, in more than just the prosodic sense of the term. The gendered English perception of phonaesthetic beauty hasn't changed a lot since Swift's "Proposal for Correcting, Amending, and Ascertaining the English Tongue" (1712):
More than once, where some of both Sexes were in Company, I have persuaded two or three of each, to take a Pen, and write down a number of Letters joyned together, just as it came into their Heads, and upon reading this Gibberish we have found that which the Men had writ, by the frequent encountering of rough Consonants, to sound like High Dutch; and the other by the Women, like Italian, abounding in Vowels and Liquids… I cannot help thinking, that since they have been left out of all Meetings…, our Conversation hath very much degenerated.
The fact is, then, that a large proportion of these "most beautiful English words" that aesthetes like to cite owe their claim to beauty entirely on a fancied resemblance to the words of other languages, rather than any inherent "English" phonaesthetic virtues. To show how great a role meaning plays in these judgments, Max Beerbohm once wrote "If gondola were a disease, and if a scrofula were a beautiful boat peculiar to a beautiful city, the effect of each word would be exactly the reverse of what it is. The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes." And Beerbohm could have added that a change in the connotations of a word is sufficient to alter the perception of its beauty. Shortly after Grant's piece appeared, Larry Horn wrote to the ADS list to ask whether cellophane was regarded as equally lovely. Larry was being arch, I assume, but in fact when it was first developed, cellophane was a glamorous product — recall the lines from Cole Porter's "You're the Top": "You're the National Gallery, You're Garbo's salary, You're cellophane." And indeed, in 1940, Stephen Fenichell reports in Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century, "cellophane crowned its ethereal dominance of the depression decade by placing close to the top in a nationwide poll designed to determine 'the most beautiful words in the English language.' Cellophane placed third — beaten by 'mother' and 'memory.'" True or not, there was a time when the story was plausible. But cellophane had a big phonetic head start over bakelite, and it's significant that Beerbohm chose to make his point using gondola and scrofula, rather than skiff and scurvy, whose phonetic shapes would have disqualified them from even entering the pageant.
Actually, none of this shows that the fact that meaning and orthography play a role in our ordinary phonaesthetic judgments makes them erroneous. I love the verb brood ("And no more turn aside and brood/Upon love's bitter mystery"), and that judgment isn't undermined in the slightest by my indifference to the form when it's used as a noun or the preterite of brew. The real self-deception here is in the aesthetes' conviction that their judgments are based in pure sonority rather than kitschy ethnolinguistic stereotypes.
And in fact the specific meaning of cellar door isn't quite as irrelevant as people imagine. The undeniable charm of the story — the source of the delight and 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 (which is to say, civilization) to reveal what Dickens called "the romantic side of familiar things." It's the benign cousin of the disquietude we may feel when familiar things are suddenly charged with strange and troubling feelings, which Freud analyzed in his essay on the Unheimlich or uncanny. As Freud observed, heimlich can mean either “homey, familiar,” or “"concealed, withheld, kept from sight." He goes on: “‘Unheimlich’ is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of’ heimlich’, and not of the second. …” But he notes that the second meaning is always present as well: “everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” Something is unheimlich, he says, because it “fulfils the condition of touching those residues of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression."
The unheimlich object, that is, is a kind of portal to the romance and passion that lie just beneath the surface of the everyday. 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 keep falling on to illustrate how civilization and literacy put the primitive sensory experience of language at a remove from conscious experience — "under a spell, so the wrong ones can't find it" — until it's suddenly thrown open. It would be hard make that point using rag mop.