What do you think is the most beautiful-sounding word in English? Consider these unpredictable choices by well-known writers, and then encourage your students to write about their favorite words.
In a "Beautiful Words" contest held in 1911 by the Public Speaking Club of America, several submissions were deemed "insufficiently beautiful," among them grace, truth, and justice.
In the judgment of Grenville Kleiser, then a popular author of books on oratory, "The harshness of the g in grace and the j in justice disqualified them, and truth was turned down because of its metallic sound" (Journal of Education, Feb 1911). Among the acceptable entries were melody, virtue, harmony, and hope.
Over the years there have been countless playful surveys of the most beautiful-sounding words in English. Perennial favorites include lullaby, gossamer, murmuring, luminous, Aurora Borealis, and velvet. But not all recommendations have been so predictable-or so obviously euphonious.
- When the New York Herald Tribune asked poet Dorothy Parker for her list of beautiful words, she replied, "To me, the most beautiful word in the English language is cellar-door. Isn't it wonderful? The ones I like, though, are check and enclosed."
- James Joyce, author of Ulysses, chose cuspidor as the single most beautiful word in English.
- In the second volume of the Book of Lists, philologist Willard R. Espy identified gonorrhea as one of the ten most beautiful words.
- Poet Carl Sandburg chose Monongahela.
- Another poet, Rosanne Coggeshall, selected sycamore.
- Ilan Stavans, a Mexican-American essayist and lexicographer, dismissed the "clichés" on a British Council survey of beautiful words (which included mother, passion, and smile) and instead nominated moon, wolverine, anaphora, and precocious.
- The favorite word of British author Tobias Hill is dog. Though he acknowledges that "canine is a beautiful word, fit for a medieval greyhound in a tapestry," he prefers "the spareness of the Anglo-Saxon in England."
- Novelist Henry James said that for him the most beautiful words in English were summer afternoon.
- When British essayist Max Beerbohm found out that gondola had been chosen as one of the most beautiful words, he replied that scrofula sounded the same to him.
Of course, like other beauty contests, these verbal competitions are shallow and absurd. Yet consciously or not, don't most of us favor certain words for their sound as well as their sense?
A Composition Assignment
In her book Poet's Pen, Betty Bonham Lies turned the beautiful-words list into a composition assignment for student writers:
Assignment: Bring in to class two lists of words: the ten most beautiful words in the English language and the ten ugliest - by sound only. Try to blot out what the words mean, and listen only to how they sound.
In class: Have the students write their words on two blackboards or sheets of newsprint: the beautiful words on one, the ugly on the other. Put in some of your own favorites of both kinds. Then talk about what elements in the words seem to make them either attractive or unattractive. Why is pandemonium so euphonious when its meaning is "a wild uproar"? Why does crepuscular sound unpleasant when twilight is lovely? Discuss disagreement among students; one's beautiful word might be another's ugly…
Ask students to write a poem or a prose paragraph using at least five of the beautiful or ugly words. Tell them not to think about form. They might write a narrative, a vignette, a description, a list of metaphors or similes, or total nonsense. Then have them share what they have written.
( The Poet's Pen: Writing Poetry With Middle and High School Students. Libraries Unlimited, 1993)
Now if you're in a sharing mood, why not pass along your nominations for the most beautiful words in English?