"cellar door"

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Thu Feb 18 13:05:41 UTC 2010

Grant Barrett contributed a nice essay in last Sunday's NY Times Magazine, [1]
an introduction to the somewhat oft-made claim that the most beautiful sounds
in the English language are "cellar door." He traced it back, so far, to a 1903
work of fiction by a teacher in Chicago.[2] That work attributed the statement
to a foreigner, an Italian.

As an aside, I noticed a puzzling use of this collocation, whether related or
no, in an earlier newspaper in Chicago.[3]  A Frenchman from Paris was
supposedly comparing and contrasting the two cities. The article commented: "It
is as if Paris said to Chicago, with an our-cellar-door air: 'Humph! Don't you
think yerself big!' What does "cellar door" mean here?

I searched for attributions, and found (post-1903) attributions to E. A. Poe,
who seemed an unlikely candidate, as he was not an alien (unless
extraterrestrial), though late commentators did mention "...my chamber
door....nevermore." Then I found a 1933 attribution to G. Mazzini. [4} that
seemed plausible, but I found no earlier confirmation. Then I noticed a 1922
attribution to Margaret Fuller. Eventually it dawned on me that Fuller--later,
by marriage, Ossoli--reviewed Poe's book including The Raven the same year it
came out, 1845; [5] and she met Mazzini in 1846. Coincidence?

"Is there not a story concerned with Margaret Fuller and her awakened
appreciation of the beauties of her own tongue through the admiration of an
Italian friend, for that word--so homely of association and so beautiful for
the disposal of its consonants and vowels--Cellar door?" [6]

Stephen Goranson



[3] A Frenchman on Chicago; Dr. Lutaud Likes Us, but Hates Skyscrapers. No Use
Skyscrapers. Admires the Auditorium. American Women.
Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922). Chicago, Ill.: Feb 2, 1896. p. 33 (1 page)

[4] The Literary digest, Jan. 17, 1933, Volume 115 - Page 17 [and not p.20 as
Google Books claimed Jan 7. "UNE substitute word, or phrase, which was several
times cited is "cellar-door," which Albert Payson Terhune (New York American)
credits to Mazzini, who, remembering his owm melliflous Italian, declared when
he began learning English, it was our "most beautiful word." Terhune reportedly
said that within the week, but I don't have the NY American to check.

[5] New-York Daily Tribune 24 January 1845, p. 1

[6] From Illinois again:

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

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