“The Most Beautiful Words in the English Language.” The article title jumped out at me on LinkedIn. Damn! Dana Dobson had scooped me! I had planned a blog post on just that topic.
Luckily, my fears were unfounded. To Dana, beautiful meant someone recognizing her as a public relations expert: “’Are you THE Emma Boldnoggin?’ he asks. ‘I’ve heard great things about you!’”
So instead of defenestrating me, Dana provided the perfect opening for my post—the old adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (in this case, it’s more likely the ear)—as I ask,
What are the most beautiful words in the English language?
Read on to learn my Top 10.
An unscientific survey of my ebullient Facebook family and friends, as well as people I met out and about, revealed that everyone has the quintessential list on the tip of his or her tongue.
Carolyn admires diaphanous, beneficence, synergy, angelic, and disingenuous. Shannon seconds disingenuous, and adds exacerbate, perpetuate, suffocating, psyche, smitten, whisper, plummeted, and oxymoron. Rendezvous, robust, and apple are Lauren’s gems. Mike cited panacea and delicious; Jessica golden and penumbra, Akeela jewel and mesmerize.
A 1980 Sunday Times readers’ poll collected these beautiful words:
1. melody/velvet (tie)
3. gossamer/crystal (tie)
10. caress/mellifluous/whisper (tie)
Experts Weigh in
Perhaps surprisingly, there is no consensus among linguistic experts. To author James Joyce, cuspidor is the most beautiful word. Novelist Henry James preferred the languor of summer afternoons. Famously, writer Dorothy Parker accorded beauty to check enclosed. Lexicographer William Funk draws tranquil, melody, murmuring, luminous, and lullaby among his faves. Crystal, shimmer, champagne, laughter, and butterfly make beautiful poetry for John Kitching.
Linguist Robert Beard’s oeuvre, “The 100 Most Beautiful Words,“ contains many of my favorites: denouement, susurrous, tintinnabulation, dissemble, quintessential, gossamer, evanescent, labyrinthine, mellifluous, and ephemeral. (Ironically, I found several words on Beard’s list that I eschew: palimpsest, desultory, fugacious, moiety, woebegone)
Has This Been a Joke for 100 Years?
The lagniappe often cited as the most fetching in all English is cellar door (I know, it’s actually a two-word combination). Not kidding. In an article in the New York Times, “Cellar Door,” Grant Barnett noted H.L. Mencken, J. R. R. Tolkien, the novel Gee-Boy, and the movie Donnie Darko as perpetuators of this notion, but no one has been able to prove its origin.
What Makes a Word Beautiful?
Why would anyone choose “cellar door,” for example?
- Most people consider a word beautiful if it sounds mellifluous, like efflorescence, hush, serendipity, and halcyon.. Perhaps cellar door was a mondegreen. Even esoteric words like desuetude, chatoyant, and potamophilous can be enjoyed for their euphonious sounds.
- Then there are words that feel beautiful because we associate highly-charged personal emotional experiences with them: mother; love; and my son Matt’s contribution, You don’t want to know Lol, which invites a plethora of ineffable postulations.
- Some words are beautiful because of how they feel on the tongue—velvet, denouement, labyrinthine—or how they look when written—Elizabeth, onomatopoeia, committee.
- Others conjure beauty because they evoke images in our minds: cerulean, seraglio, petrichor, crevasse, kiss. Linda may have suggested babies with this in mind.
- Sociocultural ramifications may give words beauty. Thank you, share, and apologize may be considered beautiful in this way.
- Is fun beautiful? Some people think so. Words like stringier and startling can be reduced by one letter at a time and still remain viable words (stringier –r = stingier –i = stinger…). Sonia called turtle and purple funny.
- It is often difficult to disentangle the sound of a word from its meaning. Lauren said love is beautiful and Linda chose truth, honesty, and freedom. Bryan voted for Irish independence, American independence, and the Magna Carta. Ryan noted that the ending –ous adds a “feeling of elegance, power, question, and a fulfilling feeling” and that –ous words “are mostly multi-syllable, which adds to this beauty.”
So can’t we draw any conclusions about the most beautiful words?
Actually, linguist David Crystal has.
Beautiful Words Share Certain Traits
Given a list of words selected as beautiful by lexicographers, linguists, and readers of the Sunday Times, Crystal analyzed the linguistic properties of each word. He concluded that beautiful English words are imbued with the following:
- 3 or more syllables
- stress on first syllable
- at least one /m/ or /l/ (preferably both)
- high-frequency consonants (l, m, s, n, r, k, t, d) and few low-frequency ones
- at least 3 different manners of consonantal articulation (where in the mouth/throat the sounds are formed)
- short vowel sounds
- vowels that move from mid towards high and from front towards back (locations in the mouth/throat where the sounds are formed)
[from “Phonaesthetically Speaking,” English Today 42, Vol. 11, No. 2 (April 1995).]
I’ve had a love affair with words all my life. Choosing which ones are beautiful is a near-impossible task—like asking a kid in a candy store to choose which treats are yummy. All of them! Of course, that’s not true. There are some words that sound ugly and have ugly meanings—flatulent, phlegm, vomit, unctuous, roach. But some are truly gorgeous–time for…
Susan’s Top 10 Most Beautiful Words in the English Language
So, revel in the cadence of whichever mellifluous, murmuring susurrus evoke a symphony in your ears and make your days idyllic and sublime. Namaste.
Share your Top 10 below.