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The Most Beautiful Word of All

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Henry James

Sitting on my patio the other day, listening to the birds, sipping a glass of raspberry seltzer, and admiring the contrast of the orange day lilies with the blue and pink hydrangea, I was reminded of Henry James’s remark that “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language.

The comment was attributed to him by Edith Wharton. The Master sketched out some of his reasoning in the opening of The Portrait of a Lady:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not — some people of course never do — the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure.

Another beloved noun phrase is “cellar door.” In a 2010 New York Times column, Grant Barrett noted the many times it’s been described as unsurpassingly beautiful, starting with Gee-Boy, a 1903 novel by Cyrus Lauron Hooper, whose protagonist

even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door.

Two years later, William Dean Howells quoted a “courtly Spaniard” as saying, “Your language too has soft and beautiful words, but they are not always appreciated. What could be more musical than your word cellar-door?

It made me wonder about other choices for the crown of most beautiful word; Google quickly informed me that there are many. In 1932, Wilfred Funk promoted his family’s dictionary by listing what he viewed as the 10 most beautiful words within it: dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, and melody. In 2014 a BuzzFeed writer asked people for their picks via Twitter; the nominations included aquiver, mellifluous, ineffable, somnambulist, aurora, incandescence, and defenestration. Robert Beard wrote a book called The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English, starting with ailurophile (a cat lover) and assemblage.

The choices — indeed, the entire discussion — is profoundly subjective. One can seek a pinch of scientific rigor at quora.com, where questions are posed and readers vote on the answers. In the matter of the most beautiful word, the nominations with the most up votes are, in ascending order, limn, recherché — which is, of course, French — penumbra, and, the winner, adronitis, defined as “frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.” It turns out that adronitis isn’t really a word, or, more precisely, was invented two years ago by John Koenig for his website The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

Where does this leave us? A word has a chance of being considered most beautiful if it has a winning combination of qualities, including pleasant associations, a sonorous combination of consonants, unfamiliarity (but not obscurity), and a pleasing rhythm, often including an anapest (dum-dum-DUM), a dactyl (DUM-dum-dum), or both.

As for me, my favorite word is the Italian way of saying “the day after tomorrow” — dopodomani.

What’s yours?

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