Monday, 11 July 2011

Words, beautiful words - or are they?

I was alerted today by Galleycat to an online list, sources unclear, of the 100 most beautiful words in English. This is different from the British Council’s 2004 list built via suggestions from the public of the world’s favourite words in English.

I read it to see how much I would agree with the selection, and found some interesting features, aside from beauty.

First of all, more than a third of the words were adjectives. Of those, almost all were positive or at least neutral. The only ones that could be used in a negative way were desultory, furtive, surreptitious, untoward (what was that word doing there?) and woebegone, but even those are hardly damning.

The only other negative-leaning words I could find were beleaguer, dissemble, harbinger (only because we associate it with the common phrase ‘harbinger of doom’), languor and lassitude, the latter pair having rather romantic, literary associations along with desultory.

Of the nouns, most were abstract or named categories rather than tangible things (tangible and frangible are favourite words of mine, both missing). I found bungalow (another mysterious entry!), elixir, gossamer, inglenook, palimpsest (which we mostly use metaphorically anyway) ratatouille, ripple, Susquehanna (a proper noun), talisman and umbrella. These, with the exception of bungalow, ratatouille and umbrella, all have quite fantastical, magical, romantic associations, and are hardly the objects of everyday life. What about pebble? Or blancmange? Or bumblebee? Interestingly, there are many more names for concrete objects in the British Council’s list of favourite words, but those did not have to be considered beautiful.

At first I thought, this list has missed a trick. Instead of beautiful-sounding words, it is largely a collection of beautiful concepts – serendipity, summery, dulcet, comely. But of course, a lot is going on when we hear a word, and when we understand the word it is almost impossible to separate the sound from the meaning (try reading aloud a poem in your own language and only hearing the sounds). I doubt anyone’s favourite word is murder, but if I repeat it until it loses meaning, I like the sound.

There are some negative words I can think of with sounds I enjoy: ghastly, frantic, turgid, flabby. One comment I saw on one of these lists suggested that, if you can forget the meaning, gonorrhoea actually sounds lovely, but I can’t seem to make the leap…

Of course, it is more likely that we will give something we like a nice-sounding moniker than something that provokes disgust, but this rule doesn’t hold fast. When we mention striking or stroking someone, we use the same hard consonants but only flinch at the former.

Associations with similar-sounding words, or negative ideas, or experiences, can also lessen the supposed beauty of a word. Bucolic was on the beautiful word list, for the notion I suppose, but to me it also sounds like disease – colic and bubonic plague.

The last interesting feature of the 100 beautiful words was the distinctly small proportion of English words deriving from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic or German, which can be some of the most pleasingly onomatopoeic and also delightful in their blunt simplicity. I love the word jug, and dumpy, dinky words like stout, clout, gob, crunch, frisk. Long, Latinate words may roll off the tongue, but the more base, simple words can be just as evocative, if not more so.

Lists of most hated words are also fascinating and great fun to analyse. One that often tops the voting amongst writers is moist, probably because of associations with its use in pieces of bad romance writing. My hairs stand on end when I start thinking about words I hate; titbit, or tidbit, for example, makes me want to wash out my mouth with soap. I will be collecting favourite and hated words this week, so if you have any to share, please tell me!


  1. I used to have a assistant at work who told me her favourite word was ubiquitous; 'now I know what it means I hear and see it everywhere,' she said.

    I like plain words like kiss, and grit and flake. And I like too the Welsh word cariad, which means darling.

  2. I'm glad palimpsest made it into this list. I love it. Bungalow may be included for its original (Indian?) colonial associations rather than for it suburban English banality. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a sucker for those Latinate words although Halcyon is pure Greek. NZ English incorporates Maori words with their cultural concepts and one of my favourites is Turangawaewae, which as well as sounding fluid means one's place of belonging (which is what my blog is about).