"cellar door"

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Fri Feb 19 05:39:39 UTC 2010

> 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.

In _Plastics: The Making of a Synthetic Century_ (Harper Business,
1996), Steven Fenichell ends his chapter on the cellophane mania of
the thirties by saying: "In 1940, cellophane crowned its ethereal
dominance of the depression decade by placing close to the top in a
nationwide poll designed to determine 'the most beautiful words in the
English language.' Cellophane placed third -- beaten by 'mother' and
'memory.' (Fenichell doesn't give a source for this.)

The charm of the "cellar door" anecdotes that Grant collected is in
requiring the reader to abruptly confront the way meaning
unconsciously colors a perception of "purely phonetic" beauty. (It
strikes me as a textbook example of Freud's Unheimlich, the familiar
made strange.) Max Beerbohm made the same point in his essay "The
Naming of Streets" (1902):

You are pleased by the sound of such words as gondola, vestments,
chancel, ermine, manor-house. They seem to be fraught with a subtle
onomatopoeia, severally suggesting by their sounds the grace or
sanctity or solid comfort of the things which they connote. You murmur
them luxuriously, dreamily. Prepare for a slight shock. Scrofula,
investments, cancer, vermin, warehouse. Horrible words, are they not?
But say gondola--scrofula, vestments--investments, and so on; and then
lay your hand on your heart, and declare that the words in the first
list are in mere sound nicer than the words in the second. Of course
they are not. If gondola were a disease, and if a scrofula were a
beautiful boat peculiar to a beautiful city, the effect of each word
would be exactly the reverse of what it is. This rule may be applied
to all the other words in the two lists. And these lists might, of
course, be extended to infinity. The appropriately beautiful or ugly
sound of any word is an illusion wrought on us by what the word
connotes. Beauty sounds as ugly as ugliness sounds beautiful. Neither
of them has by itself any quality in sound.

David Cecil related a similar story in his 1965 biography of Beerbohm:

One day [Max Beerbohm] said to [Robert] Hichens, "Do you think,
Crotchet, that a word can be beautiful, just one word?"
"Yes," Hichens said, "I can think of several words that seem to me
A pause.
"Then tell me, do you think the word 'ermine' is a beautiful word?"
"Yes," Hichens said, I like the sound of it very much."
Another pause.
"And do you think 'vermin' is a beautiful word?"


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

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