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

Bill Mullins amcombill at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 11 17:53:34 EST 2021

Assuming that the door from the basement led straight outside, and that it was then rained upon, it would become a "moist cellar door."  This would be like crossing the beams in Ghostbusters.

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 Caution-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