Years ago a poetry-obsessed friend told me that he’d read an essay in which the author proclaimed “cellar door” to be the English language’s most beautiful pairing of words. I ran the phrase over and over in my mind, but failed to see it as particularly impressive. The image of a weathered door leading to a dank stone cellar is captivating to a degree, but not particularly special. And the words themselves, experienced as phonetic sculptures or tongue exercises, are no more pleasing than countless others.
I’d forgotten all about this notion until I recently watched the 2001 film Donnie Darko. In one scene, the character played by Drew Barrymore states, with a gleaming of dull-witted awe in her eye, “This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that Cellar Door is the most beautiful.” Now I had to get to the bottom of this pseudo-intellectual hogwash.
It turns out that the “famous linguist” referred to by the film was none other than Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien (although Richard Kelley, the film’s director, later misattributed the quote to Edgar Allen Poe). Tolkien’s first mention of the phrase was in an essay entitled English and Welsh, which he originally delivered as an address to the Oxford University class of 1955. The line in question is as follows:
“Most English-speaking people…will admit that ‘cellar door’ is beautiful, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful that, say, ‘sky’, and far more beautiful than ‘beautiful’…”
Tolkien’s appreciation of the phrase was divorced from its semantic meaning. In fact, according to a later interview, his use of the phrase was meant simply to illustrate the point that some phonemes, when combined in certain ways, are particularly euphonious and served as inspiration for names and places in his writing.
“Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me – ‘cellar door’, say. From that, I might think of a name, ‘Selador’, and from that a character, a situation begins to grow.”
So the beauty of the phrase clearly relies on Tokien’s English accent. While Drew Barrymore’s American character in Donnie Darko pronounced the phrase SELL-ur–DOR, Tolkien meant it to be pronounced SEH-luh–dor. I must admit that there is a fantastical, airy quality to the phrase when pronounced thusly. But my mind still isn’t blown by it. Here are some other words and phrases that I find just as delightful, although for different reasons:
Eggplant – More than any other word I know, eggplant forces the speaker to completely reposition his tongue, lips, and teeth in order to switch from the end of the first syllable to the beginning of the second. The word requires a certain acrobatic maneuvering of the mouth, which makes it very engaging to speak aloud. Other good examples of this are dump truck and retrograde, although they are not quite as severe.
Atom bomb – Pronouncing this word causes the speaker to essentially play the drums with his tongue. AAH-dum-BOM is percussive in a way that seems to reference the violent force of the object to which the phrase refers.
Nariokotome (Pronounced NAH-ree-uh-KOT-uh-mee) – This area, located near Kenya’s famed Lake Turkana, is where, in 1984, archaeologist Richard Leaky discovered the nearly complete skeleton of an adolescent Homo erectus male, dubbed Nariokotome Boy. I am fond of this word because when it is split down the middle, it becomes two three-syllable phrases that play off of each other wonderfully. NAH-ree-uh has a wistful quality, and could have easily been used by Shakespeare to name one of his female woodland faeries. KOT-uh-mee is much more sharp, and does not allow the syllables to lazily blend into one another. It reminds me of a heavy knife repeatedly striking a cutting board. When spoken as a whole NAH-ree-uh-KOT-uh-mee sounds almost like a first and last name, perhaps that of a mythical maiden with a first name denoting peace and mildness, and a family name implying that she comes from a clan of powerful warlords (I guess I’ve caught the Tolkien bug). It is this contradiction that makes the word stand out to me.
Anemone – The four syllables of this word flow effortlessly from one into the next, allowing an unbroken hum to accompany the pronunciation of the letters. When spoken over and over in rapid succession (uh-NEH-muh-nee-uh-NEH-muh-nee-uh-NEH-muh-nee…) it quickly dissolves into a chain of playful nonsense sounds, all undertoned by an ohm-like hum.
There are countless other words and phrases that are just as pleasing, if not more so, to the tongue and to the ear. I encourage you to reply to this post with some of your favorites. Please describe in detail what you like about them. Nonsense words are encouraged as well. I’m more interested in pronunciation than in meaning.
Some Further Reading: