The Untitled Blog Marathon, Day 93: Honeyed Words

January 2nd, 2011

T.S. Eliot said that cellardoor was the most beautiful English word.

This kind of startled me when I read it a few years back because, (a) I always thought it was two words, and (b) independently of Mr. Eliot, I had privately decided that the most beautiful word in English was celadon, which denotes a pale jade-green glaze used on ancient Chinese and Korean pottery.  Old T.S. and me, I thought: two of a kind.

And now someone calling himself Dr. Robert Beard has had the temerity to identify the 100 most beautiful words in the English language.  I’m not going to list all of them here, but here’s a link to the whole shebang.

Dr. Beard qualifies as a Wordie; he wrote the “Word of the Day” feature at for five years (and I think I’m obsessive) and has otherwise proved himself a guy who could probably spot an escaped syllable at forty paces in a thick fog.

His list has some real peaches on it.  Felicity, ethereal, dalliance, ephemeral, dissemble, labyrinthine, ineffable, ingénue, lassitude (a real dilly), insouciance, a bunch of others.  Kind of long on the eh sounds and Ls, but those are mellifluent, which is not on the list, although mellifluous is.  Mellifluous is more commonly used, but mellifluent beats its pants off for beauty.

But then there are words on the list  that are, well Words. Mondegreen, for example, is not a term one tosses around frequently, and the definition is worse than the word: “A slip of the ear.” Okay, so you say “potato” and I hear “tomato.”  is that a mondegreen?  Well, I say it’s bad hearing and I say the hell with it.

Or riparian, meaning on the bank of a stream.  Go ahead, use it in a sentence that doesn’t make you look like a pratt. Or palimpsest, a manuscript that’s written over another manuscript (and is frequently used to refer to the manuscript beneath).  Okay, it’s got a beautiful meaning, but I don’t hear it as a beautiful word.

What would you suggest?  Remember, the meaning doesn’t matter.  I’d go for silicon and effluent (talk about a bad meaning) and imperious and elementary and illuminate, for starters.  You?

Oh, and a stray thought.  We all like food, right?  Will anyone who doesn’t like food raise a hand?  All right, Donnie, you can conjugate Croation verbs during lunch.  So how come so many of the words related to food are so ugly?   Food, for example.  Eat.  Lunch.  Grub, for Christ’s sake.  Chow.  Snack?!?!? Those are some seriously ugly words, and I’m just getting started.

Finally, reaction to “Blog Folly” suggests strongly that we need a new name.  I’m reviewing your suggestions, which are excellent.

I think that’s it.  Any other pieces of business?  Is anybody going near the shoemaker?

20 Responses to “The Untitled Blog Marathon, Day 93: Honeyed Words”

  1. Suzanna Says:

    Romantic languages have great words for eating: mangiare, comer, manger.

    Why not risk a few sideways glances and use one of those lovely words instead?

    One beautiful word comes to mind: lyrical.

    Not sure if that was a serious question but I’ll answer anyway, I am not going to the shoemaker, but I am very jealous that the best shoe repair guy ever has a shop in your town on Montana and Fourth. Angelo’s Shoe Repair. Great work.

  2. Peg Brantley Says:

    I think when it comes to food, we should all speak French. I wonder what the French word is for ‘snack.’

    Oh . . . riparian. Funny about that definition. My sister lives in Tucson and she kept talking about how their home backs to a riparian. I had to look that word up twelve times before I decided it’s some new real estate code word in the desert for Open Space.

    As a rather anal person, I have a folder on my computer that is for words. Here are two of my favorites:

    Crepuscular (awful sounding, isn’t it? But used in the right way in a suspense novel? . . . ) it means of or resembling twilight. Dim. Seems like you could elicit a couple of goosebumps with that one word.

    Susurrous. To me it sounds like what it means . . . full of whispering sounds.

    Every day words? I like pollywog.

  3. Gary Says:

    The short ugly words are usually the ones with an Anglo-Saxon origin. If you excise those, you’ve removed most of the ugliness from English and most of the coarseness as well. I guess being covered in woad and wearing skins did encourage people to grunt.

    No one for frangible? I like frangible.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey there, word-lovers.

    Zanna, between you and Gary, I feel delivered from the food=ugly word syndrome. Go Latinate and avoid Anglo-Saxonisms. By the way, Gary, “being covered in woad and wearing skins did encourage people to grunt” is a great sequence of words. Mange, mange. (And yes, Suzanna, that’s the shoe guy I meant.)

    Peg, French for “snack” is le snack. And “crepuscular” is a truly dreadful word. Another one I like in that general neighborhood (of meaning, anyway) is “tenebrous.”

    “Sussurous” is magic. (So is “Mississippi.”) And pollywog is like a stand-up comic.

    Gary, frangible is a four-star word, although its most contemporary meaning, for bullets that break apart in the body, has changed the way I look at it.

    I just wrote a short paragraph for Madison that’s about words and here it is: “What in the world was he doing down there? Why had he needed her keys if the car was out of gas? Was he going to siphon gas out of their cars? What would he use as a siphon? What, exactly, was a siphon? There ought to be a word, she thought, a group noun describing things you accepted as real even though you had no idea what they were.”

    I love writing this character.

  5. Gary Says:

    Ouch! If that’s frangible’s most contemporary meaning, I don’t like it either.

    So let’s all go with Peg and vote for sussurous. Why, even describing it is beautiful. It’s… onomatopoeic!

  6. Peg Brantley Says:

    I like frangible anyway. It really should be an ice cream flavor.

    And names . . . I love saying Christiane Amanpour.

    Happy New Year, everyone. Hope you know enough to stand out of the way when everything is going great.

  7. sharai Says:

    This is how much I love this blog! Whatever you decide to call it, I call it sublime. I’ve been cut off from my phone line for weeks now and when I finally get to an internet connection (which is a huge effort when you live in the mountains) what’s the first thing I go to after my email? No matter my mood, this spot always has a positive effect on me.

    Sometimes cognizant, sometimes subliminal.

    But speaking of Madison: she really got a hold of me with that bit about the screen door and her Achilles heal. I’m in love with her too and I hardly even know her!

  8. Gary Says:

    Oops, sorry. It’s susurrous.

  9. Debbi Says:

    I’ve always liked the sound of “riparian,” because it sounds so … ripe.

    And I rather like the sound of “usurious,” even though it isn’t a very nice quality.

  10. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I love words, and agree with Susanna about French and Italian-and spanish word being somehow more lovely. If you got Tim’s link, there is the list of beautiful words and also the funniest words-Now crepuscular might fit in there. Madison sounds delightful, and she is right about things that you know nothing about-makes it ok.

  11. Peg Brantley Says:

    Well, that would be my goof, Gary. Sheesh.

  12. Bonnie Says:

    I told my old torts professor that I loved to say “Ho sbagliato” when I was in Italy. He told our crim law prof, Dicci, and he said, “I don’t know what it is, but I want some in a sandwich.”

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I wouldn’t stand a chance at Scrabble with this bunch.

    Gary, “onomatopoeia” is on the guy’s list. Aaaahhhh. It’s okay. But if you want a word with that general sound and you’re really capable of divorcing the word’s beauty from its meaning, gonorrhea is a much more beautiful word, I think.

    Peg, frangible ice cream would have to have chips. Maybe vanilla with tangerine chips. Jeez, that sounds good. And names, sure: Stephane Mallarme, the symbolist poet, or my new favorite collection of syllables, Volokhonsky, one of the translators of the edition of War and Peace I finished reading this morning. Whadda name.

    Welcome back, Sharai. I’ve missed you. I was hoping your mountain hadn’t come down in the rain. Thanks for making this place an early stop. And I love Madison. I’ve finally got her and Simeon together and the problem is that I like her more than I like him. Maybe it’s not a problem. This is going to be, on one level, anyway, an impossible love story. Maybe it’s writing itself exactly right.

    Hi, Debbi — I’m with you on “usurious.” I like “pecuniary,” too. There aren’t many “f” words, either on his list or suggested here. I like fallacy.

    Lil, the Romance languages have it all over us. I mean, just look at the mouths of French women — Jeanne Moreau or Leslie Caron, to pick two. Those mouths were shaped by the language. Well, maybe not. But it’s a nice fancy.

    And talk about not euphonious — my Captcha id Preenday Dooley

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Bonnie — when you’ve finished making the sandwich, can I have an orange tort?

  15. Robb Royer Says:

    Mad likes ‘however’.

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Robb — I probably should clarify that “Mad likes” is not new slang (“I mad like that shirt”) but rather Robb’s wife’s nickname (Maddy or Mad) and a verb.

    I like however, too. I think that’s the first “V” sound anyone’s suggested.

  17. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    R-i-i-ight, Tim, it’s all about the language. But even the names in Romance languages are beautiful…not the heavy thud of German and english.

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    One word I like that clearly has a Latin root is lollapalooza.

    Or maybe not. But definitely not Germanic.

  19. Larissa Says:

    Favorite word though not for the sound: Maugre. Or Mauger however you prefer. (c: Prettiness-wise, I think my vote is in for persimmon. It’s just fun. (c:

  20. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    OOOOOOoooooooo, Riss. Persimmon. OF COURSE.

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