If someone asked you to name the most beautiful word or phrase in English, how would you choose it? Would your choice be based on the meaning of the word, its pronunciation, or spelling?
In his essay “English and Welsh,” J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that cellar door was the most beautiful word, as its sound is simple and pleasing.
Serendipity is another word that was suggested as most beautiful-sounding. Unlike cellar door,serendipity has the advantage of positive associations.
Henry James, known as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism, said: “Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
Words like mother and love often appear on lists of beautiful English words. So do defenestration and lollygag. They are not all chosen for the same reason. Some words tug at the heart, some pique the mind, and others are simply euphonious.
There are two notable lists of the most beautiful words in the English language. One of them was created by Dr. Robert Beard, a language expert, and the other one is the top-70 favourites generated via a British Council survey of more than 35,000 people in various countries.
Dr. Beard’s list, which can be found at AlphaDictionary.com, is believed to be the most complete work on the topic. It contains words that sound both beautiful and elegant. Here are a few examples, with synonyms and brief definitions.
Diffuse— disperse, spread, disseminate
Languor— laziness, indolence, slowness, dreaminess, lethargy
Nebulous — vague, hazy, imprecise, ill-defined
Symbiosis— cooperative relationship between dissimilar entities
Lilt— cadence, inflection
According to a British Council survey, the top 10 most beautiful words in the English language are mother, passion, smile, love, eternity, fantastic, destiny, freedom, liberty, tranquillity. Greg Selby, Communications & Marketing Officer who is responsible for managing the project, said: “It’s interesting that Mother, the only word of the 70 that describes a direct relationship between people, came top of the poll. It is great to see words in the survey that are so positive and suggestive of the British Council’s purpose; words such as freedom, liberty, peace, renaissance, and destiny. These chime with our aim to help millions of people worldwide access opportunity through English, and promote stronger ties and improved perceptions of the UK.”
A lot of other researches independently worked on assembling their own lists of the most beautiful words. Zach Frechette, Former Editor in Chief of GOOD, in his blog listed the following:
ailurophile— a cat-lover
colporteur— a book pedlar
champagne— an effervescent wine
ebullient— bubbling with enthusiasm
encomium — a spoken or written work in praise of someone
inure— to familiarize, to train
niveous— snowy, snow-like
petrichor — the smell of earth after a rain
Last but not least, there was something in June 2012 issue of the Reader’s Digest that caught the eye of many. The topic was “The most beautiful words in the English language are…” There were three suggestions in the article:
…check enclosed.— Dorothy Parker
…play ball!— President George H. W. Bush
…I told you so!— Gore Vidal