The Romantic Side of Familiar Words

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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 scurvywhose 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.


  1. Gareth Rees said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    The Tolkien comment cited in the Leslie Jones biography is from his essay "English and Welsh", originally the O'Donnell Lecture given at Oxford on 21 October 1955, and reprinted in The Monsters and the Critics.

    "Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is 'beautiful', especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.

    "The nature of this pleasure is difficult, perhaps impossible, to analyse. It cannot, of course, be discovered by structural analysis. No analysis will make one either like or dislike a language, even if it makes more precise some of the features of style that are pleasing or distasteful. The pleasure is probably felt most strongly in the study of a 'foreign' or second-learned language; but if so that may be attributed to two things: the learner meets in the other language desirable features that his own or first-learned speech has denied to him; and in any case he escapes from the dulling of usage, especially inattentive usage."

  2. David B Solnit said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    Adding to the point about warm-blooded languages: the assertion about the beauty of cellar door always made me think of rendering it into French as c'est l'heure d'or. Liquids, two cardinal nuclei out of three, and "it's the golden hour" (or golden moment?) … ahh.

  3. Steve Hartman Keiser said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    I understand that "selladore" can help us make lovely latinate associations both in orthography and in sound.

    But I wonder if the normal spelling doesn't also count among the pleasing attributes of "cellar door". There are doubled letters in the middle of each word: the parallel lines of "ll" and the eye-like spheres of "oo".

    At any rate, I like Nunberg's comment on favorite words from _The Way We Talk Now_: "What we're looking for isn't sound or meaning alone but the happy wedding of the two." and as an example he offers "…diarrhea. What a waste of fine syllables that is." (p.21)

  4. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

    I like "cellar door" when spelt celador, which makes it mildy noble somehow, but "Selladore" looks horrible and contrived, and smacks to me too much of Sellotape (sticky tape) and Sellafield (a nuclear power facility that changed its name from Windscale, which had got associated with safety problems).

  5. Dan T. said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

    So we need to have an Unheimlich Maneuver performed on us!

    The production company behind the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire game shows is named Celador; perhaps they liked the phonic effect too. (Actually, the Wikipedia article claims they were inspired by Tolkien's claim about the phrase and the need to detatch it from its orthography.)

  6. Cliff Bowman said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

    From the cited NYT article:

    “Cellar door, oleomargarine; oleomargarine, cellar door. If we agree with modern fanatics, that assonance and cadence alone make poetry, we have a poem in those four words.”

    Did I miss something?

  7. Army1987 said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    Reminds me of David Icke pointing out that if "sandwich" was an informal term for "having sex" and "fuck" was a term for two slices of bread with meat in between, uttering the former in public would be outrageous, but uttering the latter would be totally normal.

  8. neff said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    Perhaps it's "Stella D'oro" that the fans of "cellar door" really like so much…

  9. Andrew W said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    I prefer 'attic hatch'.

  10. John Cowan said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    I've always wondered if Le Guin's island Selidor isn't an example of this. It's a physical place in her Earthsea Archipelago, but also (because it is the westermost known land) also a fairy-tale setting: many stories, we are told, begin "As long ago as forever, and as far away as Selidor."

    Alas, I have never gotten it together to write to her about either this, or whether the phrase "The tadde was a miner" in The Dispossessed is a conscious echo of "My daddy was a miner" in the song "Which Side Are You On?"

  11. Mike Albaugh said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    I would have assumed that folks who find "cellar door" so beautiful had something in common with Emo Phillips

    When I was a kid my parents used to tell me, "Emo, don't go near the cellar door!"
    One day when they were away, I went up to the cellar door. And I pushed it and walked through and saw strange, wonderful things, things I had never seen before, like… trees. Grass. Flowers. The sun… that was nice… the sun..

  12. Tom Recht said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    This is a little like saying that if you like pizza, that's because you associate it with "the impulsive, passionate peoples of the South", not because you enjoy the taste. (And that if you claim to really enjoy it, you're just showing off your aesthetic refinement.)

    The perception of certain sounds and sequences as beautiful – particularly coronals, liquids, open vowels, and open syllables – long predates the "kitschy ethnolinguistic stereotypes" Nunberg ascribes it to. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in the first century BC, wrote (in On Literary Composition, ch. 14) that the low and mid vowels of Greek were more beautiful than the high ones, that l and r were the most beautiful of the consonants, and that consonant clusters were generally ugly; and this (along with a distaste for velars) seems to reflect general Greek conceptions of euphony pretty closely. The Greeks do seem to have disliked s's (because "a rational animal should not hiss", according to Dionysius), but apart from that they would have loved the sequence Selador. Nothing to do with gendered perceptions, Romanticism, or civilization and its discontents at all.

  13. Tom Recht said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

    Tolkien, by the way, loved the sound of Finnish and Welsh, but disliked French and was indifferent to Italian. No correlation there with cultural stereotypes of passion, Southernness, or the Edenic past, as far as I can see.

  14. Carl said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    Freud’s analysis of “unheimlich” reminds me of the Greek “agia” meaning “holy” which, at least according to the possibly folk- etymology I heard, is derived from “a” + “Gaia” — not of this Earth. The holy is at once attractive in its beauty and purity yet utterly repulsive in its unearthliness and severity.

  15. Carl said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

    Hmm, Wiktionary claims agios is from PIE, not from the unearthly. Still, I like the false etymology better.ἅγιος

  16. marie-lucie said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

    "mother": as a non-native speaker of English, I would never vote for "mother" as the most beautiful-sounding English word, whether with a British or American accent.

  17. Tom Recht said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    Carl, it is a folk etymology, I'm afraid. The Greek word has an h, hagios. It has been derived from an Indo-European root *yag, meaning something like "consecrate" or "worship", based on possible Indo-Iranian cognates, but I don't know how secure this etymology is.

  18. peter said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    I write in amazement that such a long post can be written about such an ugly-sounding phrase. I guess mileages differ . . . .

  19. theophylact said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    I recall my uncle telling me of his two Russian emigré cousins arguing over the relative beauty or ugliness of the English and Russian languages. The one, an engineer, said that even the simplest and most useful things in Russian sounded beautiful; for example, "гидравлические пресса", which in brutal English was "HyDRAWLic PRASS". The other retorted, "No, you have it all wrong. In English is 'hydraulic press'; so mellifluous. But in Russian, 'GEEdrawlisTICHesky PRESSa!'"

  20. Bobbie said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    This entire discussion reminds me of the supposed names given to chlidren "because the mother liked the way the word sounded (or was spelled) " Examples I can remember: Pajama pronounced PAH- juh- MAY. Female pronounced Feh -MAH -lay abd Vagina. These may have been urban myths, but over the years I met teachers or nurses who swore that they had seen those names in the children's records. (And then there were Moon Unit and Dweezel Zappa…)

  21. theophylact said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    (Sorry, should be "GEEdravliCHESky"…)

  22. TB said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    This post is a relatively inoffensive example of my least favorite thing, which is telling people "you don't actually like the thing you like, you just pretend you do to look cool." I really don't think one has to attribute preferring bamboccianti to history paintings (for example) to some "ploy of conoisseurship". I realize that Geoff Nunberg is not saying "you don't like it", he's only saying "you don't like it for the reasons that you imagine/pretend", but still, it's a kind of obnoxious assertion.

    GN: It's self-deluding to imagine that we form our tastes and judgments with no thought to the impression we make (on others or ourselves) or the cultural capital we accrue. But that doesn't mean that we don't really like the things we say we do. Bourdieu was very careful to make this point in Distinction, his investigation of the sociology of taste; though we may pursue the acquisition of culture as a kind of investment, he writes, "it is in no way suggested that the corresponding behaviour is guided by rational calculation of maximum profit… The term 'investment' must be understood in the dual sense of economic investment… and the sense of affective investment. The art-lover knows no other guide than his love of art." So there's no calculation in my belief that "The Magic Flute" is sublime (notwithstanding a libretto in one of those harsh northern languages), but I'm not under the illusion I came to Mozart with no thought to what that preference signifies. And while the collectors of Warhol adore the work, they're not unaware of what it means to own a Warhol. Same goes for Porsches, come to think of it.

  23. NW said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

    I've always thought it likely that Tolkien was the origin of this (and the one who showed Lewis), because he was working on Welsh-inspired invented names including Eriador and Gondor. He might have hit on Selador as a meaningful combination in his Sindarin, and then been struck by the strangeness and delight and distancing: something of what he was to call Mooreeffoc in _Tree and Leaf_, the strange distancing Chesterton noticed in seeing 'coffee-room' through the other side of the glass. Clothed in new garb, the familiar becomes wonderful. After all, 'cellar door' is scarcely ever used in English: it's not a familiar collocation. It is perhaps _more_ likely that it was suggested by a fortuitous Selador than the reverse.

    GN: Both Grant's column and the ADS post I linked to above (see also the post by Stephen Goranson) make it clear that Tolkien came late to this party. The claim was in circulation long before his 1955 essay "English and Welsh," from people including Mencken, George Jean Nathan, and Margaret Fuller. Cellar door used to be quite common in American English, as Birdwell's comment (below) suggests. ADDED: See also Laudator Temporis Acti, here.

    More yet: Bob Newsom reminds me that in this passage Chesterton was referring not to his own experience but to Dickens' experience of seeing "Coffee Room" written backwards, which Chesterton read — or rather misread — as an example of the "elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate objects." In fact Dickens' shock on seeing the backwards lettering (as related by Forster) had a purely autobiographical source — it reminded him of the unhappy time when he was working in a blacking factory as a boy. Tolkien couldn't have been unaware that the word was drawn from Dickens — Chesterton makes that clear — but Tolkien used "mooreeeffoc" for the general (that is, impersonal) effect that Chesterton assigned to the episode.

  24. empty said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    I believe that the urban myth about a baby named Female (three syllables, accent on second) has the hospital staff writing this word on the birth certificate where it says "sex" and the unfortunate non-English-speaking mother, misunderstanding, overwhelmed in multiple ways, thinking that she has had no say in naming the baby.

    A friend of mine swears that he has first-hand knowledge of a pair of twins, born on a stormy night, named Thlunda and Lighteen.

  25. Birdwell said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

    Whenever I read about "cellar door" and its appreciation, I always think of that children's song:

    Oh hello playmate, come out and play with me
    And bring your dollies three.
    Climb up my apple tree,
    Look down my rain barrel
    Slide down my cellar door
    And we'll be jolly friends forever more.

    A quick Googling just now cites the origin of that song as 1940.

  26. Heidi Kent said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

    Here's a great old Monty Python bit on word sounds and their meanings, reaching the (probably not surprising) conclusion, "funny thing, dear, all the naughty words sound woody."

  27. John Burgess said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    Utilitarian connotations of 'cellar door' overpower aesthetic ones, I'm afraid, at least for me. Speak easies of prohibition days and now bars galore carry the name.

  28. TB said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 1:28 am

    I agree with you there, but I think when you say they "professed to prefer" the street-life paintings, you pretty much imply that they did not, actually, prefer them. Maybe that's an error of reading on my part. But why not just say "preferred"?

    In general I find a sense of judgment in phrases like "kitschy ethnolinguistic stereotypes" which obscures the point I think you're trying to make. Anyway, I'm playing literary critic now, which is not something I'm qualified for. Do you know what word I like? "Monopoly". "Monopsony" is also nice.

  29. Mark F. said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 1:31 am

    Do non-rhotic speakers feel the aesthetic merits of "cellar door" more than rhotic speakers? To me, "selladore" has a pretty sound, but you have to mispronounce "cellar door" to make it sound the same.

    It's funny. To my ear, pronouncing those two the same sounds almost lazy, as if you just can't be troubled to say that 'r' that you know should be there. On the other hand, pronouncing "Toyoda" and "Toyota" the same is just how you do it. I'm guessing that RP speakers have quite the opposite feeling.

  30. Spectre-7 said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 2:33 am

    "Monopoly". "Monopsony" is also nice.

    I've always rather liked the sound of malevolence. If it weren't for the meaning, I could name a daughter that.

  31. Peter Taylor said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 5:18 am

    @Mark F, speaking as a non-rhotic BrE speaker, I use the same sounds for the two but I don't think I would naturally place the stress in the same place. I put it on door and Sell. As for aesthetic merits: I can't say that cellar door sounds particularly beautiful, but in support of the general "Romance languages sound beautiful" claim I do love the sound of Horace's ode Fons Bandusiae.

    And yes, to believe that people can really think Toyoda and Toyota sound the same I had to say them with an approximation to an American accent.

  32. David Fried said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 5:37 am


    I had the same association to "cellar door," but to a well-known popular song from 1894:

    It appears on the sound track of the movie "Reds."

  33. Bec said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 5:52 am

    Perhaps due to the rarity of cellars in ordinary houses where I grew up (Australia), my only association with the phrase cellar door is the bit of a winery where one tastes (and possibly buys) wine. Hence the "beauty" of the phrase to me is similar to that of "cheque enclosed"…

  34. empty said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    I once met someone (in Edinburgh) whose daughter was named Velocity.

  35. ellis said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    I wonder if the echo of "celadon" (just one phoneme away to us non-rhotic types) has had an influence here.

    Not only does it have a romance-language literary pedigree going back to Ovid, borrowed into English (from the French) as a poetic colour name. It's main referent – a kind of ceramic work – is both Far-east exotic and itself the object of serious, long-standing aesthetic connoisseurship.

    We have had hundreds of years of discussions of the beauty of exotic celadon, hundreds of years of uses of that word to make precise aesthetic distinctions in heightened, allusive language. Whether conscious or (as seems likely) not, surely that history can't fail to shape our appreciation of such a near phonetic neighbour.

  36. Graeme said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    A beautiful post.

    Contrary to John Burgess 'cellar door' only has happy modern connotations for me: buying wine from its estate.

    But youse guys jest surely: only northrrners have cellars, let alone doored ones. The word is just one of a thousand mellifluous ones to someone from a warm climate.

    It's a most bizarre if gentle debate to imagine separating sound from sense.

    'Cascade' is my No 1.

  37. Mary Bull said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    Fascinating discussion. I'd like to ask: how much do our word preferences owe to how the consonants feel in our mouths? I've read the post and the comments while sipping my morning orange juice, savoring its sweetness on my tongue and its environs, and pronouncing "cellar door" from time to time, as well as the other candidates to be "the most beautiful word in English" which have been brought up here.

    "Cellar door" gets the tip of my tongue involved with every consonant except the lovely "r" that, for me, rounds it off. Perhaps I'll try it with lemonade sometime, or maybe cocoa.

    BTW, the 1940 playmate song was one I heard on the ferry from Aransas Pass, Texas, to Port Aransas, at age 13 that same year, and it always comes to mind with "cellar door," immediately. There were no such things as cellars and cellar doors in the little coastal town where I grew up, but I understood the song's lyrics because I'd run across them in my story books. (A very cute, strange boy who also happened to be among the crowd of families on that ferry was singing it — but I didn't get acquainted with him, and so he remains a fantasy in my octogenarian memory.)

  38. Amy Stoller said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    @NW: "After all, 'cellar door' is scarcely ever used in English: it's not a familiar collocation."

    I don't know if it qualifies as a collocation, but it's certainly in wide use in my neck of the woods – in part, perhaps, because of the song "Oh, Little Playmate" (sung as a clapsie) but also because where I live, we have cellar doors – which, oddly enough, often lead to basements. (Go know.)

    There are words whose sound and/or mouthfeel I like for reasons of my own. I find this statement, "The real self-deception here is in the aesthetes' conviction that their judgments are based in pure sonority rather than kitschy ethnolinguistic stereotypes" as offensive as the idea that anyone can decide on the loveliness of a phrase for someone else. You may think you know what is going on in someone else's mind, but you cannot know. The individuality of an aesthete is as entitled to the same respect as that of anyone else.

    GN: It's a safe bet most people are confident they can hear a word-form as pure sound, without associating it with any language or dialect, just as they can evaluate an accent on purely aesthetic grounds without reference to the group it's associated with. It just sounds harsh (soft, musical, slovenly, grating, beautiful) in and of itself.

  39. Sili said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Adding to the urban legends, I think there's one about someone naming their daughter Chlamydia after having heard a nurse mention that lovely name.

  40. marie-lucie said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    Given names, being mostly unanalyzable and meaningless, are a much better indication of what people find euphonious or not.

  41. T-Rex said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    Yes, but given names can have strong connotations too based on the attitudes of the hearer to people they know of with that name.

  42. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    Kitschy ethnolinguistic stereotypes can be among the underlying sources for these aesthetic judgements, but surely not the only important one. Every language has a built-in sound symbolism system, to some degree, and this can hardly help but figure strongly in the equation. Some elements of this may be universal, like those displayed in the Kiki-Bouba effect, while others seem unique to each particular language. The presence of phonaesthemes in a word can't help but influence our judgements too. It's not ethnolinguistics that causes us to intuit that "bloorg" can't possibly be called beautiful.

    There also must be many associations we may give to sounds or sound types that are intracultural rather than based on some other language's sound. For example I have always found "syphilis" to be among the prettiest-sounding words of our language, and yet when I examine this, I can't think of any language this sort of phonetic sequence might suggest. Instead, the first association that always comes to mind is to the mythical creatures called sylphs.

  43. Jason said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

    Have you ever stared at an English word long enough that it ceases to look English (or insert your native language)? Might be a good time to weigh its merits.
    My favorite word changes often. Current favorite is 'embrittlement'. Sounds like a tight little snare drum finish.

  44. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    I had a professor whose pet word was "interlarded." He used it in every class, I think. It's an unappealing word to my ears. But then he was an unappealing person.

  45. Al Brown said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 3:22 am

    I thought "Bank error in your favor" was the most beautiful phrase in the english language :-)

  46. stripey_cat said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    I tend to approach language euphony from a singer's perspective: languages with lots of non-nasalised vowels are good; languages with lots of stops and nasals are a PITA. In order, my preferences are probably Latin, Italian, German, Hebrew, English, Greek, French (anyone who can sing well in French without mangling either the pronunciation or their sound production has my greatest respect). Cellar door is a very easy set of sounds to sing, so I like it! Ice-lolly is in some ways nice too, but the repetition of l can get clumsy, and i isn't the easiest vowel to produce well.

  47. rb tulsa said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 8:26 am

    Maybe some literary type can look into this: in the late 50's or early 60's (at my age these things run together) I read a novel about pre-gold-rush California in which the intrepid American protagonist arrived in that idyllic climate and was befriended by a fellow who unertook to teach Spanish to the newcomer. In the course of that effort, he told "our hero" that the most beatiful word he knew was an English word. Our man was incredulous until he heard his host pronounce the words "cellar door".

    Can't possibly remember the name of the novel or its author, nor do I have any idea when it was written. We had a very random assortment of books around our house…

  48. James Wimberley said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    It´s only close not exact, but in her fine fantasy Earthsea epic, Ursula Le Guin named the westernmost island Selidor.

  49. marie-lucie said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    rb tulsa: The Spanish speaker happened to choose a word sequence that would sound like a Spanish word.

  50. Layra said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    Although the idea that a person's preferences are shaped only by a desire (conscious or otherwise) to seem sophisticated is less than generous, I do find it kind of odd that a single phrase could be considered the most beautiful sound by so many people. Surely individual tastes would run differently enough that we wouldn't have such a clear-cut winner amongst such a large population if each person were completely isolated.
    Why only "cellar door"? There are plenty of other phrases in phonological proximity that would fit someone's tastes. Cellar room? Mallard? Why is "cellar door" so singularly popular?
    For the record, my favorite word, phonaesthetically, is "clusterfuck".

  51. Jason L. said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

    Hmm, "clusterfuck" is aesthetically compelling, but I find it hard to believe that anyone finds it "prettier" than "cellar door". I guess this may be analogous to how I find The Rite of Spring to be more aesthetically compelling than The Four Seasons, even if the latter is prettier.

    With regard to why so many people have latched on to "cellar door", it could be simply a network effect or a rich-get-richer phenomenon where popularity leads to more popularity. Of course, this raises the question of what characteristics of "cellar door" made it a candidate for popularity that phrases with a different set of characteristics would not have been eligible to be.

    Spectre-7, we probably have similar phonoaesthetic tastes. My longstanding favorite word is "vermillion", which has a lot of the same characteristics as your "malevolence", which I also find especially beautiful.

  52. Dan T. said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    The song "Talk Dirty to Me" by Poison says "Lock the cellar door, and talk diry to me."

  53. Lynsey said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    Ah, Das Unheimliche. One of my favourite words/concepts.

  54. Tom said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    Interesting, my first exposure to this sort of claim was the story that circulated in my high school that the word "gonorrhea" was the most beautiful word in the English language. It seems likely the origin is the Max Beerbohm quote you mention. Oddly, "Gonorrhea" seems like much better match for "Gondola" than "Scrofula", but of course that would undermine his point since it would reinforce the idea that sound symbolism has power apart from connotation.

    Following that up, it does seem unlikely "scrofula" would ever be claimed to be a "most beautiful word." As just one English speaker, I'd say I do tend to find stronger or more beautiful or what have you either monosyllabic words with clusters and stops (crag, scrum, drift) or polysyllabic words that sound more romantic (italianate/spanish). "Scrofula" is a hybrid, beginning with a cluster but clearly not of germanic origin, and as a result it just looks absurd.

    GN: I think the most interesting nugget here is that this was a story that made the rounds of your high school — a local version of the same process that propagated the claim about cellar door through English-lg literary culture. As such, it would have had to have been offered as a bit of news: that is, it would have had the form, "Actually (in fact, did you know that, a survey revealed, science has learned that, etc.) gonorrhea is the most beautiful word in the English language," rather than being offered as someone's subjective judgment. (It's hard to imagine a story circulating to the effect that "Yesterday" is the most beautiful English language song or that Isabella Rosselini is the most beautiful woman on earth.) In which case what circulated was not so much an aesthetic judgment as a report about an aesthetic fact.

  55. FRANK SCALPONE` said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    "baam " may not be the most beautiful sound in English, but if you you are saying "balm" it ranks up there. However, if you are saying "bomb," fugedaboutit.

  56. Corey B. said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:28 am

    My nomination for beautiful word with extremely unpleasant connotations (and Mediterranean sound as well!): Melanoma. It sounds like an enchanting villa somewhere.

  57. Gramsci said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    I think turning to Freud's "unheimlich" leads to another Freudian read of "cellar door." It is a threshold to something below, both opening to it and shutting it out. It's not just a "common" "prosaic" phrase, it is symbolically oriented toward the low, the base, the unconscious, the primal forces and instincts. That is to say, "cellar door" is an apt image of an aesthete standing on the line between high and low, civilized and animal, sensual and abstract, holy and profane, sense and nonsense. The Freudian analyst Leonard Shengold links this function to the sphincter, which, for analyst or adolescent boy, "cellar door" could easily evoke (see his "Halo in the Sky"– yes, haloes are sphincters too).

    I believe in phonaesthetics, but "cellar door" is a semantic hanging curveball for the psychoanalyst.

  58. JPL said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 4:43 am

    What's mystifying to me is that this one phrase "cellar door" has been seized upon when there must be so many other words and phrases with a similar sound structure. (The semantically beautiful should be a separate question.) E.g., Tom Recht's post above that Dionysius of H. considered 'l' and 'r' to be the most beautiful of the consonants reminded me that I always loved the sound of "cerulean blue" ( and also, with Jason L., "vermilion"). The Johnny Mercer (if I'm not mistaken) song "Midnight Sun" is full of beautiful sounding words. I'm sure I could think of others. On what basis do I give any one of them the prize "Most beautiful word"?

  59. karal ilushu said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    hmmm…cellar door kinda reminds me of "cest la dieux". the child barely two years old looking with hungry, wicked & curiously glimmering eyes at the cellar door. a door to a brand new world, a different life from boring old school and stuck-at-home ennui. behind that door lie forbidden wonders of a double existence that runs parallel to a humdrum ordinary daily grind.

    a cellar door
    to explore
    to enter
    its center
    and find
    my mind
    but this has to be
    between you and me…

    "such is the secret life of the child that where the adult pursuits of philosophy and theology offer only sadness, s/he finds meaning and passion in two simple artistic word: play and playfullness"

  60. CortxVortx said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    The following, from Ursula K. LeGuin's Always Coming Home, concerns the lost meanings of place names in the area where the story takes place:

    Sometimes the untranslated word might serve to remind us that language is not meaning, that intelligibility is an element of it only, a function. The untranslated word or name is not functional. It sits there. Written, it is a row of letters, which spoken with a more or less wild guess at the pronunciation produces a complex of phonemes, a more or less musical and interesting sound, a noise, a thing. The untranslated word is like a rock, a piece of wood. Its use, its meaning, is not rational, definite, and limited, but concrete, potential, and infinite. To start with, all the words we say are untranslated words.

  61. CortxVortx said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

    I dimly recall an article in The Reader's Digest in the mid-60s about the book The Fate of the Edsel, relating how Ford Motor Company had commissioned a poet to compile a list of beautiful-sounding words. Try as I might, I cannot remember any of them now, but I do remember that, ignoring the meanings of the words, they sounded pretty.

  62. John Lavagnino said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 3:44 am

    The poet enlisted to help name what wound up as the Edsel was Marianne Moore; my favorite of her suggestions: "Utopian Turtletop". One web source for more details is here.

  63. Bill Wright said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    "A friend and I wound our way to a familiar old book store.
    The shopkeep said our favorite fare would be found in the basement shelves,
    So down we went in search of tales of middle earth and elves.
    Hours passed as we cast our thoughts on a world of dusty lore.
    We chose a tome of ancient rhymes to share between ourselves,
    then turned to leave just to find us locked behind the cellar door.
    "Alas" we said, "we'll leave this place nevermore, nevermore!"

  64. Rusty said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 5:46 am

    What an interesting thread this is! I came across it in researching the limereick I was writing about 'cellar door' for OEDILF (at

    "Cellar door — a most beautiful word!"
    Poe, D Parker and Darko concurred.
    It's a portal to gloom,
    Or a portent of doom,
    But "most beautiful"? Nope, that's absurd.

    Phonoaesthetically speaking, cellar door is often cited as being amongst the most attractive words in the English language. Its lovers certainly include wordsmiths H L Mencken (1920), Dorothy Parker (1932), JRR Tolkien (1955), C S Lewis (1963), Denis Norden (2008) and cult-film hero Donnie Darko (2010). They also possibly include Edgar Allen Poe.

    They don't include me.

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