Written RamblesThe Most Beautiful Words in the English LanguageTyler Vendetti

Apart from inspiring a slew of deranged Halloween costumes, Donnie Darko also offers some very valuable lessons about literature. No, I’m not talking about Grandma Death’s weird book about the space-time continuum, although I’m sure that’s a beneficial contribution to society too. No, I’m talking about Drew Barrymore’s reference to the supposedly most beautiful combination of words in the English language: cellar door.

While I’m sure the inclusion of this phrase was nothing more than a plot device, I still find the idea of “pretty words” fascinating. So, I decided to do what I do best: make a list and post it to the Internet. (Can I add this to my résumé yet? List-making? Get at me, future employers.) 

1) Labyrinthine (adj.): like a labyrinth; irregular and twisting

Pronounced lab-uh-rin-thin, this word even looks beautiful. Often used to describe circuits, mazes, or university dining halls, labyrinthine describes environments that resemble a labyrinth in complexity. Contrary to popular belief (or perhaps, just my understanding of the word before I looked it up), labyrinthine has nothing to do with Pan’s Labyrinth, so no one has to worry about seeing this guy in their dreams:

Pan

If I have to see this in my head every time someone says labyrinth, SO DO YOU.

2) Murmurous (adj.): characterized by murmurs

Are you sleeping yet? Then you haven’t read this word enough times. Murmurous is not only a lulling, calming word, it’s also onomatopoeic, meaning the sound mimics the action it defines. A murmur is a low, indistinct, continuous sound, which is the exact noise that you make when you say the word murmur. (Okay, I’ll stop with the 9th grade English teacher routine, but I want someone else to appreciate my literary passions, okay??)

3) Elision (n.): the omission of a sound or syllable when speaking

While “elision” brings back memories of my high school Latin class, the word itself has a beautiful sound when read aloud. It also is not at all related to Elysium, which is the word I keep accidentally typing when I go to write down this one. Matt Damon, get out of my head.

4) Cerulean (adj.): resembling the blue of the sky

Roses are red/Violets are cerulean/Animals would be dead/If I hadn’t gone vegan. I’m not good at poetry, and my love for bacon prevents me from going vegan, but nothing else rhymed with Cerulean in my head, so stop questioning me. Cerulean (se-ROO-lee-en) is a shade of blue that resembles the color of the sky or the color of Hugh Laurie’s corneas. Strange word choice, I know, but if I said “eye” then I’d be making a rhyme with “sky” and I can only handle so many poetry references in one paragraph.

5) Mignonette (n.): a herbaceous plant with spikes of small fragrant greenish flowers

I see this word and I picture filet mignon, but a mini version, like if a family of filets were to go out to eat and they brought their baby filet with them and carried it around in a little stroller and they referred to it as mignonette. It might be wearing a bonnet. What was I saying? Oh yeah. Mignonette is the perfect blend of class and food imagery, even though the second has absolutely no relation. Saying it out loud adds a hint of “fancy” to nearly any conversation.

6) Sesquipedalian (n.): given to or characterized by the use of long words

I don’t know how to say this term, either. The dictionary says it’s pronounced ses-kwi-pi-dey-lee-uhn, so I’m going to take their word for it (PUN ALERT). I mostly put this one down because of its definition, for obvious reasons.

7) Susurrus (n.): a soft murmuring or rustling sound

People seem to like murmuring because there are a lot of words for it. Susurrus, meaning a soft whisper noise, combines the best parts of S and R to make a strangely calming hiss-slur sound, like the kind of noise a drunk relative would make when trying to say “sure” or “tyrannosaurus” at the same time.

8) Carouse (v.): drink plentiful amounts of alcohol and enjoy oneself with others in a noisy, lively way

Nouns and adjectives are starting to dominate this list, so I thought I’d throw in a curveball. Carouse is just a fancy way of saying “partying hard.” I suspect English folk wearing dresses and sipping tea describe their Friday nights using this word, but that’s just a guess.

9) Flaneur (n.): an idler or lounger

Forget list-making. I’d like to add “professional flaneur” to my resume because not only does it accurately summarize my personality, but 90% of those reading it will think I either cook flans really well or that I speak French, and I would never deny either of those assumptions. As long as no one tries to make me prove my abilities, I’ll be fine.

There are plenty of other words that I could include here, but I’m going to leave the list at 9 because I know it annoys some of you OCD people and I’m in a button-pushing mood today. I also know that what words I find beautiful (and what professional linguists find beautiful) are not necessarily the only options. What words do you think are beautiful? What words did I miss?

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  1. These words are all wonderful… I agree with Cassie about soliloquy… My favorite word is in French, though… it’s not necessarily beautiful but it’s incredibly entertaining… un ananas (pineapple)… pretty to write and delightful to say, not to mention very tasty. I feel like any word begins to look odd after writing it too many times and some of the most beautiful words are lesser used. I also like cacophony and symphonious.

  2. i love the word “soliloquy” it means an act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of any hearers, esp. by a character in a play.

  3. “Labyrinth” DEFINITELY reminds me of “The Labyrinth” (with the beautiful David Bowie) before I think of Pan’s Labyrinth. You should work on your mental word associations so you can have pleasant thoughts of David Bowie (or a blue-haired worm saying ” ‘ello!” instead of the creepiness of that creature (even though Pan’s Labyrinth is cinematographically BEAUTIFUL).
    Also, cerulean makes me so happy I painted my bedroom walls that color, AND Hugh Laurie’s eyes are lustfully gorgeous!

  4. I love the word diaphanous, it means light and delicate. And ‘indigo’, just because I love the colour :-)

  5. Serene is rather onomatopoeic and beautiful – and I agree with ‘autumn’ and ‘reverie’.
    I can confirm that we English all use “carouse” as the main verb whilst describing our nights out, over tea with Her Majesty at the Palace.
    Elision will never not remind me of Latin – though I’m with Angela on the whole “David Bowie, not Pan’s Labyrinth” imagery of labyrinthine.

  6. Hooray for “sesquipedalian”– my favorite crazy word and also because of the definition. Great post as always, Tyler!
    Izzy
    http://www.brooklynbooksandbabies.com

  7. My favorite word is ‘gumption’. Mostly because it sounds like a scoop of pudding.

    And your articles always make my day!

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  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellar_door

    even if wikipedia is not always right i often heard that cellar door is the most beautiful word in the English language

  10. Except… Almost none of these words is originally English. They either come from French or Latin (and to no surprise their romance versions are widely used in neolatin languages).
    I’d like to see a post with English-only words. And there are plenty of them out there!

    • not really sure what original English is . . . Anglo? Saxon? Celtic? Druid? even Norman, where we got the infusion of frenchy words, was a weird mixture, being Vikings who settled in French territory and assimilated there . . . before they invaded England and imposed their high-falutin’ words and ways

      this, i think, is the strength of English — the ability to absorb and embrace words from wherever and treat this stolen property as if we own it (all metaphors intended)

      i think this is also why English has become the lingua franca of our age, agreed by most to be ugly but efficient, and is thus used internationally for all kinds of business interactions — i.e., English is the current worldwide trade language, much as Aramaic, Greek, French, and Swahili have been in the past

      so original English? if we can say it, we own it :)

  11. I love the word ‘Vaudeville’ and I agree with Lori Potter, Autumn is a beautiful word, way better than Fall ;)

  12. I ♥ this article! I ♥ it so much, that I’m even able to hush my OCD inner prude, just for you. I’m a wordsmith, so it’s hard to pick just one favorite. Sparkle is a fun word. It’s just so happy. It’s like Spark and Twinkle got together and made a little word baby. Vixen is another good one, mostly because the imagery it conjures in my mind is so conflicted. Is it a sexy villainess or a reindeer? Lullaby, Musical, Scrumptious… I could go on and on. Le sigh. Oh, and when I hear the word Labyrinthine, I picture David Bowie in tight pants, not Mr. creepy eyeball hands. Thank goodness. : P

  13. I love the word “reverie”. I think it looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, and even the definition is beautiful– “a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts; a daydream”. Lovelovelove. <3

  14. Hugh Laurie’s corneas, like pretty much everyone else’s, are clear and virtually invisible. His IRISES are cerulean :-) (sorry LOL)

    But seriously, good list! I love the word onomatopoeia.

  15. “Spackle” is the most beautiful sounding word in the English language.

  16. I like the word esquire. When I say it I feel like I sound dainty and fancy. Add an English accent for added flair. ;)

  17. I really like the word “inevitable”, since it appeared in The Matrix. I had a really hard time pronouncing it, maybe that’s why ;) And now, everytime it’s on tv, I’m like: yeah! There it is, again… inevitable! Yes! I can say it now!!
    (i’m not english…. duh!)

  18. cellar door is on the new John Mayer’s music, listen to it, will love it ♥ badge and gun

  19. periwinkle :) The way the word sounds to me is what makes me love the color and the reason it is my favorite crayon in a crayola box :)

    My other favorite word because of the sound and meaning is serendipity :)

  20. I love the word Autumn