Column: Stay away from the cellar door; try these ‘hot words’ instead

12/21/2010 8:00 AM |

Dictionary.com’s “the hot word” has tapped “cellar door” as the most beautiful word or phrase in the English language. Yes, cellar door. Go ahead and say it aloud a couple of times.

The blog explains it’s a matter of phonaesthetics, and that cellar door produces a truly unique euphonic sound combination. In other words, it’s extremely pleasing to the ear.

Really?

Well, around here, our Long Island accent just kills it. “Sella daw” lacks any charm.

I suppose if you focus on pronouncing the Rs and say it in a cheery tone — all while ignoring its meaning — cellar door can sound mildly pretty.

For me, I just can’t get away from the fact that cellar door is a phrase that defines an entrance to a place I never really desired to go when I was a child. The cellar in our home was dank, dark, dreary and unfurnished. It featured a cranky boiler and a rusty weight bench.

And even when I was curious enough to think about venturing down to the basement, the door was cracked and so weather damaged that it would be tempting fate to try to open it, and then creep down the stairs without it slamming down on my head. Hence, my mother’s shouts of “Stay away from the cellar door” never sounded beautiful.

To be called beautiful, words should be held to a very high standard. And in my book, they ought to adhere to most of the following criteria:

• They should be fairly easy to pronounce. If a word causes its speaker to trip over its syllables or innocently misspell, then it has no business on a pretty-word list. Think discombobulated and ostensibly, and discombogulated and ostensively.

• They had better sound pretty, particularly if the meaning of the word isn’t necessarily attractive. Malicious, ostentatious, artillery and malfeasance come to mind. The language’s most beautiful words usually reflect their meaning.

• A word or phrase that conjures a feeling of warmth, contentment, excitement and/or love qualifies as a beautiful word. And that depends on the individual. For my mom, bingo is one of those words. For my dad, it’s Fighting Irish. And for my teenage daughter, it’s iPod Touch.

• The more syllables a word has, the better chance it has of landing on a Most Beautiful Word list.

• A word cannot qualify for the beautiful list if it sounds gross, repugnant or silly and at the same time means something gross, repugnant or silly. This is probably why you won’t find diarrhea on prettiest-word lists.

In no particular order, I offer a plethora of the items on my working list of beautiful words, a grouping I someday may call “Harmonizer’s Most Alluring Words.”

Rambunctious: I love being rambunctious, especially when the drinks are free and I don’t have to work the next day. I love saying “rambunctious”; the incredible ebb and flow of the word truly mirrors its meaning. It roars in like a lion (OK, like a ram) and shushes out softly like a lamb. I liked it so much that I named my first pet, a busy little kitten, ‘Bunctious.

Effervescent sure sounds pleasant, and my Aunt Barbara, whose company always lifts my spirits, is quite effervescent. Vivacious, enthusiasm, anticipation and extravaganza — words with pronunciations that mirror the mood of their meanings — all are high on my list.

I have held a particular affection for harbinger since I was about 8 years old. That’s when I heard the ape character Cornelius profoundly tell Charlton Heston’s Taylor in “Planet of the Apes” that man “is the harbinger of death.” That word encouraged me to think.

Quintessential, delicatessen, gentrification, synonymous, rapture, serendipity, cinnamon and facetious are all nice-sounding and well-meaning words, worthy of appearing on my list. I like chagrin if for no other reason than my wife gets a kick out of hearing me say “Much to my chagrin.”

I’ve never been to Mississippi, but I remember it being fun learning how to spell it, and it’s still fun to say it.

There are words that would land on my list simply because they sound silly or even naughty. Dillydally, lollygag, titillating and onomatopoeia fall in this category. I like that when I read “onomatopoeia,” the pronunciation in my mind sounds like the Italian guy that makes my pizza telling me he doesn’t want to hit the john.

Perhaps the most beautiful-sounding word is your first name. Daddy (not necessarily Dad) and Mommy (definitely not Maaaa) are not far behind. And the names of my wife, children and some of my relatives and close friends are among the words I most like to say and hear.

And given this exuberant and joyful time of year, it seems appropriate to conclude with a wish that includes three words sure to land on most everyone’s beautiful-word list:

Peace, love and harmony to all.

Mr. Harmon is a former managing editor at Times/Review Newsgroup and the New York Press Association’s Writer of the Year for 2009.

Comments

comments

One Comment

  • Fine piece!

    I have two gripes, though. “Gentrification” has bad connotations to many, especially if you’re poor and have to move out to make room for rich people. The old, “there goes the neighborhood,” ya know.

    And “cellar door,” while it may bring to mind the entrance to a dungeon,isn’t so unpleasant to others. Haven’t you seen the cliche ad of a boy bringing his bicycle out the Bilko cellar door, with a big smile on his face?

    Those of a certain age remember the lyrics to this song of childhood, “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard:”

    “I don’t want to play in your yard,
    I don’t like you anymore,
    You’ll be sorry when you see me,
    Sliding down our cellar door,
    You can’t holler down our rainbarrel,
    You can’t climb our apple tree,
    I don’t want to play in your yard,
    If you won’t be good to me. “