Cellar door – and other euphonies
Photograph from Grant Street Woodworking Co
By DAVID COLLARD
My recent blog on word aversion – an irrational loathing of words that are not in themselves offensive or disgusting – attracted some striking examples from TLS readers of their own particular hatreds, including “pelmet”, “Nicaragua” and the phrase “return to form”. But what about words and phrases that are objectively attractive?
There is a charming branch of linguistics called phonoaesthetics – the study of the intrinsic pleasantness (euphony) or unpleasantness (cacophony) of the sound of certain words, phrases and sentences – and the English compound noun “cellar door” has long been cited by phonoaesteticians as an example of a word or phrase that is beautiful purely in terms of its sound and regardless of any meaning. That is to say foreign speakers with no knowledge of English whatsoever nevertheless recognize something intrinsically attractive in this three-syllable sequence of phonemes, from the sibilant “c” in “cellar” to the very lovely diphthong in “door”.
Cellar door. Cellar door.
An article in the New York Times (February 11, 2010) cited the novel Gee-Boy (1903) by Cyrus Lauron Hooper as the first written mention of “cellar door”’s particular allure. Of the novel’s main character the author writes:
“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.”
Purely American? Mneh. And one has to point out that many of the words in this list aren’t English in the first place, begging the question: what are the equivalents, in other languages of “cellar door” to English speakers? The poet Michael Rosen opts for “libellule”*, the French word for dragonfly, and it would be interesting to put this to the test with a group of non-francophones (from which, alas, he would be excluded).
But to return to “cellar door”, which causes all kinds of nice things to happen to the lips, tongue and palate when it is uttered. I wonder if part of its appeal is down to the ghostly presences it contains: the homophone “adore”, or a whiff of the French “c’est la”. (This gallic echo reminds me of the 1970s BBC television presenter Larry Grayson whose catchphrase “Shut that door!” reportedly derived from his attempts to say “je t’adore”. “Cellar door” was also the inspiration behind the name of the television production company Celador, responsible for such popular entertainments as Who Wants to be a Millionaire?)
In 1935 the drama critic George Jean Nathan used the euphonious phrase to put the boot into Gertrude Stein:
“Sell a cellar, door a cellar, sell a cellar cellar-door, door adore, adore a door, selling cellar, door a cellar, cellar cellar-door. There is damned little meaning and less sense in such a sentence, but there is, unless my tonal balance is askew, twice more rhythm and twice more lovely sound in it than in anything, equally idiotic, that Miss Gertrude ever confected.”
What, one wonders, was Gertrude Stein’s favourite word or phrase? Henry James plumped for “summer afternoon”. Dylan Thomas opted for “helicopter”. In a recent Guardian poll at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Tim Lott admired “mnemonic”, Ann Widdecombe “rodomontade” and Neil Gaiman “ineffable”. Alasdair Gray’s choice was “plakkopytrixophylisperambulantiobatrix” (the title of an unfinished poem by G. K. Chesterton).
Cellar door? Helicopter? Summer afternoon? For me there is no contest.
* In the original version of this piece “libellule” was misspelled as “libellue”