Monday, October 11, 2010

Beauty Contest

A couple of blogs ago I provided readers with some of what are regarded as the ugliest words in the English language—you remember flatulent, cacophony, sticktoitniveness, phlegm, kumquat, and all those others.  Now the Beautiful People who use Beautiful Words have demanded equal time and space. 

There is no shortage of words regarded as beautiful.  Not too long ago in The New York Times “On Language” column, Grant Barrett reported that an incredible number of people think that the most beautiful word we can come up with (actually two words) is cellar door.  Among those who have unaccountably expressed such a view are H. L. Mencken, Albert Payson Terhune, Henrik Willem Van Loon, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Jean Nathan, C. S. Lewis, Norman Mailer, and Dorothy Parker (although she confessed she really preferred the words check enclosed).  The screenplay of Donnie Darko also explores the idea of cellar door’s beauty.  

Cellar door was not among the words Wilfred Funk (you know, Funk & Wagnalls) offered in a lengthy list, topped by asphodel, fawn, dawn, chalice, anemone, tranquil, hush, golden, halcyon, camellia, and bobolink.

Wordmaster Willard R. Espy (An Almanac of Words at Play) compiled his own list of beauties for The Book of Lists.  Heading Espy’s list (surprise!) is gonorrhea, presumably chosen for its sound alone.  Others Espy favors are gossamer, lullaby, meandering, mellifluous, murmuring, onomatopoeia, Shenandoah, and wisteria.

Dr. Robert Beard, who operates a website called AlphaDictionary, has a list of one hundred beautiful words, in alphabetical order, a few highlights of which are:  chiaroscuro, diaphanous, evanescent, epiphany, languor, mellifluous, obsequious, penumbra, propinquity, symbiosis, and syzygy.

A survey of noted authors turned up these favorites: home (Lowell Thomas), Chattanooga (Irvin S. Cobb), violet (Louis Untermeyer), and cuspidor (James Joyce).  Maybe Joyce was actually thinking of cellar door.

Finally, the British Council polled non-English speakers who were learning the language, and their choices for most beautiful English words included:  mother, love, passion, smile, eternity, destiny, bliss, cherish, enthusiasm, lullaby, sunshine, sweetheart, bumblebee, coconut, flabbergasted, hiccup, peekaboo, and whoops.

Your nominees for Most Beautiful will be read with interest by the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, before he tosses them into the wastebasket.

            Oh, how I love you, cellar door,           
            You are a joy, a thing of beauty,
            Much nicer than the basement floor,
            Although that, too, can be a cutie.

            O, cellar door, please give me more,
            You always make me feel ecstatic.
            The first-floor door is such a bore,
            And I hate the doorway to the attic.

            For cellar door I shout “Encore!”
            I dream of you in restless slumber.
            What is it that I so adore?
            You’re just some hardware and some lumber.

            No, it’s not a hasp or plank
            That thrills me with such blissful twinges,
            For what I love—and I’ll be frank—
            O, cellar door, is all your hinges!

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