[Ads-l] "Cellar Door" - the most beautiful word?

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed Feb 10 16:38:38 EST 2021


In 2010, following publication of a NYT article about "Cellar Door" by 
Grant Barrett, Stephen Goranson started a thread about the old claim 
that "Cellar Door" being the "most beautiful word in the English 
language.  I'm tracing the history of "most beautiful word" claims and 
"cellar door," in particular.

The NYT article is very good, and covers many of the bases.  The 
earliest reference was in 1903 from a word of fiction, in which an 
"Italian savant" was said to have made the claim.  There are also 
numerous later claims, and unsubstantiated attribution to various 
writers like Poe and Mencken.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14FOB-onlanguage-t.html?ref=magazine

Mostly, it seems that once the notion that "cellar door" was so 
beautiful, it became a kind of running joke brought up every few years 
in various guises.

There are a number of people and events that seem to have played a role 
in prompting renewed interest in the claim at various times.  One of 
those was apparently a questionnaire sent out to a number of writers by 
a publication called "Word Study" in 1932.  The earliest references to 
the study come out in May of 1932, and one report apparently based on 
the same set of facts without reference to the study appeared in April 
1932.  If the study or survey is mentioned in "Word Study", it would 
likely have been April 1932 or a month or two earlier.

Reports of the responses to that study are where references to H. L. 
Mencken and Charles Swain believing "cellar door" to be the most 
beautiful words first appear.  I have found places where both Mencken 
and Swain from the late-1910s/early-1920s specifically mentioned "cellar 
door" as a word that sounds beautiful, while having a plain, unassuming 
meaning, but without making the claim it is the most beautiful or among 
the most beautiful words.  It's not clear whether the later claim is 
from their responses to the questionnaire, or someone embellishing their 
earlier references to the word.

I'm looking for someone who might have access to that publication.  It 
is on HathiTrust, with search function but without ability to read it.  
If someone can access it, or give me access somehow, I would appreciate 
it.

Word Study: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007885305

Poe's name comes up initially as someone who built his poem The Raven 
around a word that he believed to be beautiful.  He reportedly wrote in 
his "Philosophy of Composition" that he first decided to write a poem 
about the word "Nevermore" because of its inherent beauty, and then came 
up with the idea for the content of the poem later to match the mood of 
the word.  Later, people repeating the "cellar door" story remark on the 
similarity in sound and cadence between it and "nevermore," and then 
later retellers make the claim that Poe liked "cellar door" and used 
"nevermore" because it sounded like "cellar door."  So yes, just like a 
game of telephone, as Grant Barrett suggested in 2010 in the "cellar 
door" thread.

I have an answer for Stephen Goranson's question from 2010 on the 
meaning of a reference to "cellar door" he ran across.  The article 
commented: "It is as if Paris said to Chicago, with an our-cellar-door 
air: 'Humph! Don't you think yerself big!'"  Stephen asked, "What does 
'cellar door' mean here?"

I touched on that meaning in an earlier blog post about the history of 
playground slides.  In the late-1800s, children were known to slide down 
the slanted cellar doors, like the storm cellar doors in The Wizard of 
Oz.  People had strong nostalgic feelings about cellar doors, and there 
was a popular play and song about cellar doors.  I touched on the 
nostalgia of cellar doors, without exploring the "most beautiful word" 
angle in my old post.

https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2017/08/cellar-doors-and-trolleys-history-of.html

Cellar doors were where people would play at someone's house, and if 
they got in a fight, they might say, "I'm not going to slide down your 
cellar door no more," or the like, or "I won't let you slide down my 
cellar door," in the same way one might say "I'm taking my football and 
going home."  So, I believe, something like that was what was intended 
by what Paris said to Chicago.

Interestingly, "most beautiful words" articles date back to at least the 
1840s, with the standard answer usually being home, mother and family, 
or something like that.

The earliest claim about "cellar door" was in 1903, and another 
purportedly true claim in 1905, but this time spoken by a Spanish 
admiral.

In 1909, there is an article about a proposal to build a skyscraper on a 
mountain in Switzerland, a sort of new "tower of Babel," for an 
organization interested in promoting an international language to 
encourage international peace, and who has several proposals for 
improving English, particularly American English, to make it sound more 
beautiful.  The proposal was by an eccentric Italian-Swiss pamphleteer 
named Kalo Morven who was better known for spending most of his working 
life advocating for worldwide adoption of the metric system.  The writer 
of the article then uses "cellar door" as an example of a beautiful 
sounding word already in the language.

In 1910, there are a few reports about "most beautiful words" contest in 
England, in which "cellar door" was mentioned as one word picked by "a 
fair foreigner, making her first acquaintance with our language."

In 1911, a self-help guru, a predecessor of Dale Carnegie named 
Grenville Kleiser, held a contest in New York City for1903 his public 
speaking students to select the best lists of 25 beautiful words.  The 
contestant who submitted the list with the most and best beautiful words 
won a leather-bound dictionary.  The winner was a New York attorney 
named John Shea.  Reports of the contest and the results went viral 
immediately, appearing on both coasts the following day.

A syndicated columnist with more than 100 newspapers repeated the claim 
in the 1910s and 1920s.  The "cellar door" comment became a big joke 
when Prohibition started, because the cellar door became even more 
beautiful as a place to store booze - there are a number of jokes and 
cartoons based on that.

Within two days, the Chicago Tribune reworked the original report, 
including reference to an "Italian authority" who had claimed that 
"cellar door" was the most beautiful word.  It was reprints of this 
report, in numerous newspapers all across the country, that seem to have 
made the notion of the beauty of "cellar door" widespread.  The "Italian 
authority" could be a nod to the fictional "Italian savant" of 1903, but 
it could also be a nod to Kalo Morven, who lived in Switzerland and 
apparently spoke and wrote mostly in Italian (although his biographer 
said that his brother was the Bailiff of Birmingham England).

"Cellar door" seems to have survived because it was repeated so often.  
A columnist named J. Butterfield commented on the several purported 
independent responces to the 1932 questionnaire that included "cellar 
door," because he remembered having heard the claim 15 years from a 
Spaniard named Madariaga.  He thought they were just saying something 
they had heard, instead of making the evaluation themselves - which 
brings us back to the telephone game.

------------------------------------------------------------
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org


More information about the Ads-l mailing list