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

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 11 13:15:11 EST 2021

I've scanned pages from "Word Study" a few times in the past while
visiting Library West at the University of Florida, Gainesville. The
library does have 1932 issues of "Word Study" in storage. The issues
are non-circulating.

Normally, a patron would request retrieval from storage. The patron
would pick up the volume when it was ready and access it while
remaining in the library. Since I am not a student or employee of UF,
I do not think I can currently enter the libraries at UF, Gainesville.

Right now, the University of Florida catalog says access to the volume
is "Online Only, See HathiTrust". This suggests that people with the
right affiliation, e.g., UF, might be able to access the volume online
via HathiTrust.

Here is a link into the ADS thread from 2010 (which you apparently
have already seen).


On Wed, Feb 10, 2021 at 4:38 PM Peter Reitan <pjreitan at hotmail.com> wrote:
> 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

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

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