Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Splendid Word

I ended my last post with a line from Woolf, that for many of us is "nuff said" when it comes to why we love our language: "Words, English words..." I thought since I posted two months ago on words that I hate for absolutely no sane reason, I should give equal time to words I love with the same intensity and absurdity. First, here is most of that paragraph from Woolf, with clues to why some words might grate and some might delight:
"Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations -- naturally. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today -- they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. The splendid word 'incarnadine', for example -- who can use it without remembering also 'multitudinous seas'? [...] Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great writer knows that the word 'incarnadine' belongs to 'multitudinous seas'."

--from "Craftsmanship," delivered as a BBC broadcast on April 20, 1937, part of a series entitled Words Fail Me
Woolf's points about words and their meaning-baggage are valid, but another approach to thinking about why we love words comes from the "cellar door" camp. Some words may appeal to us because they are sonorous, and for no other reason. Here is an excerpt from what may be the first mention of the "cellar door" theory in print:
“He 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; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”

--from Gee-Boy, by Cyrus Lauron Hooper, 1903 (and pulled from this NYT article)

For me I think a combination of these things is at work when a word moves me or sticks with me. (For my most-hated hit list, however, I maintain that it is only the sound quality of the words that I find abhorrent, as I have no issue with the meanings. I could make a list of words I hate for the meanings, but wouldn't that just be a list of things I hate?)

So here are some of my favorites, including proper nouns from around these United States:

boat ride
Cucamonga (anglicized Shoshone, so it counts as English)
Clarksville (any simple name with a "ville" after it gets me...'cept maybe Hooterville and Margaritaville)

*Appalachian. (A "haint" is a ghost.)

There are more. Maybe I'll add them as I come across them in my reading. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments, especially those where the meaning is obviously not why you love the word.


  1. While I don't have any deep, philosophical thoughts to share here, I thought I could at least offer some of my word idiosyncrasies.

    One of my psychology teachers has been especially fond of using the word "parsimonious" to describe experiment design, and I've grown particularly fond of the word over the semester. Other favorites are "autumn" and "dreamt."

    I'm also fond of words that have British equivalents, like color/colour, favorite/favourite. I prefer the latter spelling, but refrain from using it in formal papers.

    The words that I like just have a sort of "feel" to them that makes me enjoy spelling/saying them more than most other words. I know in my speech and my writing I sometimes choose words that sound more fitting, even if there is a more precise denotation that I could choose in that instance.

  2. I like 'bastinado', because what it actually means isn't what it sounds like it should mean. So I suppose my reason for liking it is linked to meaning, just not the correct meaning.

    Words I like purely for their sound:

  3. Fragrant


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