Cellar door words

The term cellar door has, according to J. R. R. Tolkien and a number of other writers, a particularly pleasing sound, even though its meaning isn’t anything special. An article in the New York Times discusses the origins of this idea, an example of phonaesthetics*, and cites a 1903 novel by Cyrus Lauron Hooper, Gee-Boy, as the first mention in writing of the aesthetic properties of cellar door. It is said of the main character in the novel that:

“He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”

In 1955 J. R. R. Tolkien wrote an essay entitled English and Welsh which has been mentioned as the origin of the idea:

“Most English-speaking people…will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.”

The OED lists a source from 1425, when it was written celer dore, as the earliest use of cellar door in English, though doesn’t mention the phonaesthetics of the term.

* Phonaesthetics is the study of the inherent pleasantness (euphony) or unpleasantness (cacophony) of the sound of certain words, phrases, and sentences. It comes from the Greek: φωνή (phōnē) – voice-sound; and αἰσθητική (aisthētikē) – aesthetics [source].

Cellar door words for me include spollagyn (chips/fries in Manx), schmetterling (butterfly in German) and spontus (terrible, awful in Breton). There are more examples on my favorite words page.

What are you cellar door words?

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, Greek, Language.

12 Responses to Cellar door words

  1. Randy Clark says:

    schmetterling is on my not-so-beautiful words. particularly when contrasted with mariposa, papillon, etc.

  2. phanmo says:

    I quite like pamplemousse (grapefruit in French); it seems to be a favourite of anglophones in general.p

  3. Magnus says:

    Pamplemousse is one of my French cellar doors too.

    I agree with Tolkein in finding Welsh to have a particularly large number of cellar doors (not that I’m biased). One of my favourites is smwddio which, apart from having an intrinsically nice sound (which is what qualifies it as a cellar door), is a very onomatopeic description of the activity it refers to – ironing (certainly not one of my favourite activities, though I liked the Welsh word so much that I used it at every available opportunity in my Welsh classes when I was learning and eventually got banned from using it in the dosbarth!). Another one is smaragdus (I can’t remember if that’s quite how you spell it), an old word for emerald.

  4. Jayarava says:

    Autumnal is my favourite English word. Sanskrit would be suśrava ‘worth hearing’.

    Have you come across either Margaret Magnus and her book Gods of the Word or her work on phonosemantics; or John Michell’s book Euphonics? Both touch on this subject.

  5. Rauli says:

    I have an actual list of words I like. At the moment, the English column contains these:
    adorable, bryony, chiral, cute, destiny, ebony, ember, Gemini, gorgeous, heinous, love, riot, scree, security breach, triiodide, twins, vixen

    The other columns are Finnish (my native language), Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Spanish, Japanese, Indonesian and “others”. I’m not going to annoy you with the whole list, but here are a few picks:

    Finnish: haapa (aspen), itämerensuomalainen yhteisaika (the period when the Finnic protolanguage was spoken), kaksoset (twins), pähkinä (nut)

    Spanish: aguantar (to tolerate), nadie (nobody)

    Japanese: 君 (kimi; you), 正反対 (seihantai; polarity), 絶対 (zettai; absolute), 流れ星 (nagareboshi; meteor), びっくり (bikkuri; surprised), やる気 (yaruki; eagerness)

    Indonesian: suka (to like), tahun (year)

  6. Sathyarthi says:

    Magnus, that’s interesting about the word ‘smaragdus’. I believe this is the Latin term for ’emerald’ which in turn, must ultimately derive from the Sanskrit ‘marakata’. In Tamil, it is normally pronounced as ‘maragatam’, with a ‘ga’.

  7. dreaminjosh says:

    My favourite string of sounds is the french “entre les parenthèses transparentes”

  8. Andrew says:

    I liked the English word “lacustrine”… as I had imagined it should be pronounced in my head. As it turns out, its proper pronunciation is not the same, and is also not as beautiful as my imagined one.

    I like the French “lumière”, “aléatoire”, and “chevalier”, and the Spanish name for the letter “Y”, “i griega”.

    Lastly, I’ve been studying Korean, and I’ll throw some of my favorites out there: “노을” (sunset), 따라 하세요 (please repeat after me), and 아름다워요 (beautiful, which is fitting).

  9. prase says:

    I like hiatuses (hiati?) and therefore have special fondness for Polynesian languages – I have been fascinated by Polynesian local names. Aotearoa, Raiatea, Rangiroa, Nouméa… When the word includes /r/, the better (ironically I have long been unable to pronounce rolled r properly).

    Among European languages my favourite is Romanian, even if it lost part of its appeal after I realised that many apparent hiatuses are in fact diphtongs. But still: Sighișoara, Rupea, Vrancea, Sinaia, Predeal, Oradea… My favourite phrase has long been the one written on old banknotes: “falsificarea acestor bilete se pedepsește conform legilor” – forging of these banknotes is punished by the laws.

    Other languages I like recently are Finnish (lovely partitive singular!) and Japanese. And although I don’t like too many consonants, I can forgive it if the word is long enough. Thus German “Fliegerabwehrkanone” or “Umweltschutzministerium” I consider strangely beautiful.

  10. Yenlit says:

    “Smaragdus” which Magus & Sathyarthi mentioned is listed in older Welsh dictionaries but only as an adjective while modern dictionaries have the noun (maen gwerthfawr – precious stone) “emrallt” pl. emralltau and gwyrddfaen pl. gwyrddfeini for ’emerald’. I would’ve expected ‘smaragdus’ to have a prefixed ‘y’ (ysmaragdus) when adapted into Welsh orthography like (y)smwddio from Magus’ post also but loss of this older ‘y’ spelling and the final ‘f’ in some words is consistent in modern Welsh now?

    In English there’s ‘smaragd’ (adj. smaragdine) which is marked as archaic and ‘smaragdite’ (a green fibrous amphibole mineral)

    Breton has: emrodenn pl.emrodennoù (French: émeraude) and emrodez collective form: emrodezenn as well as gwervaen pl. gwervein

    Think we all recognise the meaning of the name Esméralda from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame?

  11. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Gegenschein— German for the sunlight reflected off of dust near our planet. The English term is “zodiacal light”, but I’ve seen the German one used just as often in English.

  12. phanmo says:

    I came across another one yesterday, in both English and French: “hermitage”.

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