"cellar door"

Grant Barrett grantbarrett at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 18 15:37:21 UTC 2010

Stephen, thanks for that excellent summary. I had planned to do what Ben Zimmer occasionally does and put more information on ADS-L, but there was a fire in the apartment beneath ours on Monday and we are still living in hotels and working with the professional restoration cleaners and, well, things continue to be discombobulated.

Your research path mirrors my own. It was necessary for the Times piece to strip away the least substantiated speculation and spend more time with "cellar door" as phenomenon than with trying to lay down all of my attempts to discover the origin. Of course, had I found the origin with certainty, it would have been included prominently, since origin stories with an element of "eureka!" to them are attractive. But, in the end, I agreed with the Times editor that the big names who were quoted were likely to be of more interest to the readers. I did, at least, manage to put a sock in the talk of Tolkien as the originator.

I spent quite a time trying to find out if the 1896 Frenchman had said something similar elsewhere, to no avail. Same for Mazzini: I can't find him making the claim in print anywhere in a source contemporary to his lifetime. Who knows what was repeatedly said aloud on the public speaking circuit but never committed to print (or was committed to print which is not yet online?

For what it's worth, I have about 80 citations for "cellar door" and its supposed beauty from print sources that are not simply reprints or requoting of other citations. There are many thousands more online, though many of them are related to "Donnie Darko." The list is a good illustration of the kind of misattribution telephone game that happens with many ideas.

If get the spare time I will try to redraft the Wikipedia entry for "cellar door."

Grant Barrett
grantbarrett at gmail.com

On Feb 18, 2010, at 05:05, Stephen Goranson wrote:

> 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
> http://www.duke.edu/~goranson
> [1]
> http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14FOB-onlanguage-t.html?ref=magazine
> [2]
> http://books.google.com/books?id=cp4XAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA44&dq=%22cellar+door%22+intitle:gee-boy&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=0&cd=1#v=onepage&q=%22cellar%20door%22%20intitle%3Agee-boy&f=false
> [3] A Frenchman on Chicago; Dr. Lutaud Likes Us, but Hates Skyscrapers. No Use
> for
> 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:
> http://books.google.com/books?id=1y8UAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA271&dq=%22cellar+door%22+intitle:illinois&lr=&as_drrb_is=b&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=1922&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=1922&as_brr=0&cd=1#v=onepage&q=%22cellar%20door%22%20intitle%3Aillinois&f=false
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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

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