Yes, you read that correctly, cellar door is the most beautiful phrase in the English language.
In my wildest imagination, that phrase would have never come to mind. If you showed me a list of 10 phrases, one of which was cellar door, it’s highly unlikely that I would have chosen cellar door (unless the other nine words had something to do with modern art.)
So who decided that cellar door was so beautiful?
Apparently the people who study phonaesthetics, which is the study of the euphony and cacophony of words without regard for semantics. Euphony is used most commonly to describe the pleasing, agreeable sound effect of poetry. In general, vowel sounds are more euphonious. Cacophony, meaning harsh and discordant, is the opposite of euphony.
In terms of phonaesthetics, cellar door is often held up as an example of the most euphonic sound combination. None other than J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, is credited as one of the first to make this claim.
Now I don’t certainly claim to have the same mastery of the English language as J.R.R. Tolkien, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read anything by Tolkien, but his choice of cellar door as such a beautiful phrase certainly doesn’t make me want to run out and read Lord of the Rings.
When I think of or say the phrase cellar door, my thoughts certainly aren’t of beauty, but of creepy, dark, dank places.
The first house my wife and I lived in had a cellar door, similar to the one pictured above, but not nearly as nice. I can’t recall any of my experiences of using that cellar door (which I trie to avoid as best I could), as being particularly beautiful moments.
So the choice of cellar door might have to fall under my take on modern art; I just don’t get it. Like this work of art below by Robert Ryman, known as Untitled. The all white painting sold for $15 million at a 2014 auction.
I’m not sure what’s worse, having cellar door as the most beautiful word in the English language, or the fact that Untitled sold for $15 million. Hopefully it’s not a comment on the state of American culture…
By the way, if someone were to ask me for the most beautiful sounding word or phrase in the English language, while ignoring the meaning of the word or phrase,I would pick the word legerdemain.
I’ll share in a future post one of the highlights of my college experience that involved the use of the word legerdemain.
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