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Beauty of Cellar Door (minicast)
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2010/07/19
9:08pm
San Diego, California
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It's been said that the most beautiful combination of words in English is cellar door. But why?

After this caller raised the question, Grant did even more digging on the topic. The result: He wrote an article about it that appeared in the New York Times.

Released July 19, 2010.

Download the MP3.

Photo by Wayne Wilkinson. Used under a Creative Commons license.

2010/07/20
4:07pm
New River, AZ, USA
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Grant & Martha,

OK, so I listened to the podcast. "Cellar door" has got to be a meme. Its meaning is not beautiful, nor is its sound. In fact, I had never heard of that two-word combo described as being beautiful. I liked Martha's suggestions of "lullaby" and even "microchip." Guess it has something to do with how the word rolls off the tongue.

I read somewhere (don't recall the source) that the single most "beautiful" word in the English language was "illumination." I like that. It does indeed roll off the tongue. Plus, it has a beautiful meaning as well. And then there's the additional meaning, from the pre-Gutenberg era, of literally making a word beautiful by the addition of color or gold or silver leaf. I was unable to locate the source online, but I really do like that word.

Kinda' on the same topic, I always felt the word "cacophony" was somehow evocative of its meaning. It is an ugly (sounding) word.

Interestingly, none of these words makes Robert Beard's Top 100 List.

2010/07/21
12:43am
Ron Draney
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I have to wonder if the supposed beauty of "cellar door" is because it reminds someone of "celadon" (a type of gray-green glazed pottery) or some other word with real-world associations to something beautiful. Like "celesta" or something.

2010/07/21
3:41am
Glenn
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In the category of words with repulsive meaning but a beautiful sound, I nominate colostomy.

2010/07/21
6:28am
Jackie
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Glenn, I'll see your colostomy and add diarrhea.

2010/07/21
8:10am
Jessidney
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The source of the words cellar door being beautiful might very well have come from a French person because the words cellar door sounds eerily like seul l'amour or seul adore. Which means only love in French.

2010/07/21
1:01pm
GuyInMilwaukee
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I always assumed (not sure where I read/heard this but it goes way back) is that the beauty of the words "Cellar Door" is when they are spoken with an refined English accent. I'm sure you all are sounding it out now in your best James Mason/Laurence Olivier voice. To me I always thought that it was a thing of beauty when spoken in that way. Excellent topic.

2010/07/21
2:04pm
Atlanta, Georgia
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Words that sound beautiful, huh?

susurrus
murmur
mellifluous
ululation
eukalele
Walla-Walla (because it just feels good to say it)
cessation

There's a pattern, here, that's not all that hard to see. :)

One I thought of is amusing because it's from the movie "Protocol" with Goldie Hawn. She relates the story of her and her friend/cousin(?) going to see "Baba Noctananda" who was an old hermit who lived blah blah blah.

Baba Noctananda. Baba Noctananda. Say it a few times. :)

What makes a word "beautiful"? Is beauty in the mind of the speaker?

2010/07/21
3:33pm
New River, AZ, USA
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If it's just the "sound," then why "cellar door" and not "seller door" or "salad or" or (fill in your own homophones)?

Now there's another example of an "ugly" word … "homophones" … I don't like the (nudge nudge) connotations there.

2010/07/21
7:19pm
Phil
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Homophones is such a beautiful word though. It sounds like a name brand for a cell phone. Or maybe some manly steel and construction yellow package. Call it 'HombrePhone'.

I may be biased. But I like to think that the beauty of a word is both in it's sound and the images it brings up.

Vacation
Home
Fun
Lunch
Love

2010/07/21
8:03pm
New River, AZ, USA
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You know, now that you mention it, I guess it does sorta' have an assonance to it. Get "homophone" … the first cell phone really designed for our species.

2010/07/22
9:22am
dilettante
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And of course: "It's got a sort of woody quality about it. Gorn. Gorn. Much better than 'newspaper' or 'litterbin'."
(http://orangecow.org/pythonet/sketches/woodytin.htm)

2010/07/22
1:38pm
SoCal
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A contestant on the 1950's TV show "You Bet Your Life" hosted by Groucho Marx was named Cellar Door. She explained her parents thought they were the most beautiful words in the English language. It was one of the few times Groucho was speechless.

2010/07/22
2:54pm
telemath
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I've always liked the flowing reduplication of "borborygmus".

dilettante said:

And of course: "It's got a sort of woody quality about it. Gorn. Gorn. Much better than 'newspaper' or 'litterbin'."
(http://orangecow.org/pythonet/sketches/woodytin.htm)


As long as we're Barely Sequitur, The Vestibules did a skit about words that are just fun to say: Bulbous Bouffant

2010/07/25
7:40pm
Ron Draney
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I know Martha expressly excluded "butterfly" (along with "love" and "mother") when asking what words we listeners find beautiful in sound, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to share this story:

A group of students at an international university were sitting around one day when the conversation got round to whether the nature of a thing determines the nature of the word used to refer to it. The American suggested "butterfly" and said that the name resembles the creature: colorful, ephemeral, carefree.

The French student agreed, adding that "papillon" is also a beautiful word, no doubt because it names a beautiful thing, and the Spaniard added that the same was true of "mariposa". The Italian threw in his own opinion that "farfalla" was transcendently appealing.

With that, the German student huffed once, folded his arms, and growled "und vat is wrong mit 'Schmetterling'?"

2010/07/26
11:45pm
san diego, ca
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GuyInMilwaukee said:

I always assumed (not sure where I read/heard this but it goes way back) is that the beauty of the words "Cellar Door" is when they are spoken with an refined English accent. I'm sure you all are sounding it out now in your best James Mason/Laurence Olivier voice. To me I always thought that it was a thing of beauty when spoken in that way. Excellent topic.


As I am reading this (Harry Potter playing in the back ground, read by Jim dale) I hear "cellar door" in a semi posh English accent, you know it doesn't sound that different than when I say it.

One of my favorites is "scruples". On the other end, a lot of people hate the word "moist".

2010/07/27
9:35am
dilettante
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Here's another allusion to the beauty of "cellar door", courtesy of the Tufts University Center for Cognitive Studies (and Bill Griffith):

http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/incbios/RayJackendoff/language.pdf

2010/07/27
7:30pm
Dalliance
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I rather like the sound of zephyr. The word is onomatopoetic with a nice soft ffff in the middle. I also like the word staccato.

Cellar door has got to be a joke from somewhere back in time that has gotten to be misused.

2010/07/28
5:59am
Amie D.
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I've been thinking about this a lot this since listening to the minicast, and have determined that "hullabaloo" is a particularly beautiful word (to my ears, at least). I like all of the sounds in it and their arrangement.

2010/09/20
11:43am
Toby
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I'm a little late responding to this topic, but my daughter used to love to say aluminum anemone when she was younger. Inane, but beautiful.

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