What are words for? (Photo credit: Darwin Bell)
Do you like the phrase cellar door? Would you like it better if you knew it is considered one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language?
The claim that cellar door is beautiful to the ear — in opposition to its prosaic meaning — has been made by and attributed to a wide variety of writers over the years. “Poetry, in fact, is two quite distinct things,” H. L. Mencken wrote in a 1920 magazine column. “It may be either or both. One is a series of words that are intrinsically musical, in clang-tint and rhythm, as the single word cellar-door is musical. The other is a series of ideas, false in themselves, that offer a means of emotional and imaginative escape from the harsh realities of everyday.”
—The New York Times
Do you agree? And what makes a word beautiful to you, anyway?
One website is set to find out, asking visitors to vote in word vs word battles. Laurel leaf vs yells. To take office vs umpteen. Comparable vs cosignatory. The viewer is given pair after pair of words or phrases and asked to choose the more beautiful. The idea is that at about a hundred million votes or so, a list of the top twenty-five most beautiful, and least beautiful, will emerge as chosen by the internet.
At the time of this writing the site claims there have been almost 200,000 votes cast, still a long way from a million. The lists of ten best and ten worst are thought provoking. On the ten most beautiful list, several words of distinctly non-English origin, including aide-de-camp, pita, and ibis. First among the ten ugliest: pregnant. Accompanied by negative pressure, data storage, and to flambé.
One can only speculate which words and phrases were voted up (or voted down) because of their internal rhyme structure, and which were chosen (or not) because of their meaning.
Convalescent home or oracle?
Macroscopic or redouble?
Price quote or century plant?