Thursday, January 27, 2011


Remember in the film Donnie Darko, when his English teacher (played by Drew Barrymore) says that "cellar door" is the most beautiful combination of words in the English language? I had an English lecturer who swore it was actually Auden's phrase from his poem "The Fall of Rome", "altogether elsewhere" that was the most beautiful. Well today I discovered that the name for this lovely literary investigation is called "phonaesthetics". The beauty of the words or phrases in question doesn't rely on there actual meaning, but rather the sounds of the words. Therefore, even to a non-English speaker, these words should sound beautiful. 

According to wiki, the cellar door idea is attributed to Tolkien, and cellar door has its own Wikipedia entry. Research has of course been conducted into phonaesthetics, surveys have also been carried out to generate lists of words that people think are beautiful or elegant. Here are a few from Dr Beard's top one hundred:

Diffuse – disperse, spread, disseminate
Effervescent – fizzy, sparkling, bubbling; lively, vibrant, vivacious
Ephemeral – short-lived, transient, fleeting
Epiphany – sudden perception or intuitive grasp of meaning or essence; illuminated discovery or realization
Evanescent – vanishing like vapour
Gossamer – delicate, sheer, flimsy, filmy, transparent, diaphanous, gauzy
Halcyon – calm, peaceful, untroubled, quiet, still, heavenly
Languor – laziness, indolence, slowness, dreaminess, lethargy
Lassitude – tiredness, exhaustion, inertia, apathy
Lilt – cadence, inflection
Luxuriate – enjoy, savour, relish, delight in
Nebulous – vague, hazy, imprecise, ill-defined
Panacea – cure-all, universal remedy, magic potion
Penumbra – partial shade or shadow, obscurity, uncertainty
Plethora – overabundant, surfeit, excess, glut
Scintillate – to be brilliant, animated; to sparkle
Serendipity – chance, destiny, fate, luck, providence, fortune
Susurrus – rustling or whispering sound
Symbiosis – cooperative relationship between dissimilar entities

 Got a favourite beautiful sounding word or two? I like Ithaca and epistemological.  


  1. Many that I agree with on the list, especially nebulous and susurrus. I'd add titillate, cogitate ... there are so many. I love words.

  2. I think ambivelent and oriface are nice sounding words.However there are too many other ones that are out there.Clare

  3. It's interesting that a lot of these are "s" sounding words. I've always loved the words "Wuthering" - it conjures up images of storm and isolation for me.

  4. I grew up in a small town called Elmira, twenty miles from Ithaca NY, so I am partial to "Ithaca" myself (and then attended Syracuse University -- not quite as flowing, but a Greek town name with those soft "s" sounds in it).

    Nabokov taught at Cornell in Ithaca, where he developed the collegiate setting for "Lolita" and wrote part of the novel there.

    And there is Dorothy Parker's observation that the most beautiful words in the English language are "check enclosed." I'm partial to those words, too!

  5. I've become a fan of lugubrious, lascivious and salacious. The last two, said with a lurid sneer and an expostulating tone are prime examples of the colour and beauty of the language.

  6. lassitude has always been one of my favourite sounding words... never quite been able to work it into a poem though.

  7. Mississippi. I've always loved that word. The more times you say it, the less it makes any sense at all, but it still sounds lovely.


  8. i also have a thing for the word triffids... great band & novel. thanks McComb et al & Wyndham!


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