"cellar door"

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 18 20:09:48 UTC 2010

Thanks to Grant Barrett for writing a wonderfully entertaining article
in the New York Times. The "On Language" column has showcased some
very fine writers on language: Grant Barrett, Ben Zimmer, Fred
Shapiro, Erin McKean and others.

The belief that the term "cellar-door" is beautiful and musical is the
punch line of a joke that appeared in 1905 in Harper's magazine.

Citation: 1905 September, Harper's Magazine, Editor's Drawer, Page
645, Harper & Brothers.  (Google Books full view.)

                Unappreciated Beauty

An American lady who, at a dinner-party in Madrid, was seated next to
a Spanish admiral, was praising the beauties of the Spanish language,
"so exquisitely musical and poetic."

 "Ah. madam," replied the courtly Spaniard, "your language, too, has
soft and beautiful words, but they are not always appreciated. What
could be more musical than your word cellar-door?"


Of course, the excellent 1903 Gee-Boy reference precedes the
appearance of this joke in Harper's. Also, the 1903 cite refers to an
"Italian savant" instead of a "Spanish admiral". Perhaps the joke was
constructed using the anecdote in Gee-Boy. Alternatively, the joke was
being transmitted orally before either reference. (Grant Barrett
probably already has this cite, but I think it is worth sharing here.)

The following citation may provide evidence for the pronunciation of
cellar door in 1909 if one can determine how to pronounce the name of
a counterfactual Shakespearian heroine Celadore.

Citation: 1909 September 4, The Outlook, The Spectator, Page 18, The
Outlook Co., New York. (Google Books full view.)

The Spectator heard, not long ago, of a Spanish gentleman who politely
disclaimed for his own language any monopoly of musical words, saying,
"What word in Spanish is more musical than your own term 'cellar
door'?" And, indeed, if, instead of being a term suggestive of ashes
and dilapidation, the same sounds, Celadore, were, let us say, the
name of a beautiful heroine in a play of Shakespeare's, we might
readily understand how the ear might find them musical.


I located a 1914 cite that mentions Edgar Allan Poe adjacent to a
comment on the musicality of the term cellar door. However, Poe is not
responsible for the comment about the term cellar door.

Citation: 1914, Intensive Studies in American Literature by Alma
Blount, Page 29 and 30, Macmillan, New York. (Google Books full view.)

Poe, who studied sound effects carefully, says that he chose
"Nevermore" as the refrain for The Raven largely because the word
contains the most sonorous vowel, o, and the most "producible"
consonant r. An amusing story is told of an Italian lady who knew not
a word of English, but who, when she heard the word cellar-door, was
convinced that English must be a most musical language.


It seems possible that the above passage of text might have been
garbled, telescoped, or misconstrued to produce the claim that Poe
himself considered the term beautiful and musical. The twisting of
attributions and the garbling of text is mandatory for communicators I
have found while attempting to trace quotes.

Laurence Horn asked "I wonder if "cellophane" is regarded as equally
lovely." I do not know if cellophane is considered to be a lovely
word, but it did give rise to an extended joke.

Citation: 1951, The Pacific Spectator, Vol 5. (Google Books snippet
view. Date and specifics unverified.)

Sir Gilbert Norwood, Greek scholar from Toronto, was present. He
disagreed: to his mind the most beautiful word in English was
cellar-door. No doubt, said one, he was thinking of the late Greek
romance of Cellardoor and Cellophane. He professed to have a
preference for the pronunciation cellophane (this term has diacritical
marks that I could not reproduce here that are visible by following
the second link). But he made no converts. Cellophane was a perfect
name for a hero — transparent, tough, and protective, as men are.


Thanks to Stephen Goranson for finding and sharing the intriguing
connection of cellar door to Margaret Fuller. That is a very early
connection since Fuller died in 1850.


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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list