Saturday, August 4, 2007

summer afternoon

The column of mercury inside the porch thermometer is about as tall as it can possibly get. The dome of the sky is pale and blue and smudged with white. I'm sitting in the air-conditioned bedroom on the third floor, eating cherries and spitting their pits into a bowl, drinking lemonade that's mostly lemon juice.

Henry James famously said that "summer afternoon" are the two most beautiful words in the English language. But, at least to my ear, there's nothing inherently pleasing about them except for their meaning. The "m"s in summer, might be reminiscent of a languid, buzzing heat, but afternoon, though it begins promisingly, pinches with the "t" and ends with a disappointing thud, like a stone dropped into a well.

When asked to vote on the most beautiful English words, people chose mother, smile, love, fantastic. But if you pay attention to the sound, not the sense, none of those words would be on the list. Tolkien especially liked the lilt of "cellar door" and I think he was right. The loveliest cadences are found in strings of voiceless aleolar sibilants, like the s in sea, and velar lateral approxmants, like the l in milk, sounds made with an open mouth or the tongue pressed lightly behind the teeth, elongated syllables that hush like lullabies or sharp consonants that glimmer like gemstones.

So, here are my choices for the most entrancing words: apostrophe, cerulean, quiescence, ellipses, spindle, celadon, fuselage. What are yours?


LeRoy Dissing said...

If just going by the sound and not the meaning of the word, I like the way melancholy sounds!

Zee said...

"...pinches with the 't' and ends with a disappointing thud, like a stone dropped into a well." I love, love, love the way you think about words, Niobe.

Offhand, the only entrancing word I can think of in English is "exquisite." I love the way the "x" sound turns in your mouth, a sharp consonant followed by a sibiliant, then it gathers itself together and rises up, then subides into another sibilant. The combination reminds me of the sea breaking on the shore.

My all-time favorite word, however, is Danish: "Selvfølgelig" (pronounced "sell-fool-elle-ee"). It translates to "Of course" or "Naturally," similar to the French "Bien sûr." Saying its round middle and repeated "l"s feels like eating a big mouthful of something good. (Rød grød med flød, perhaps?)

slouching mom said...


S. said...

Coming in from the garden, the word lobelia is on my mind (just unburied one from an encroachment of weeds)

LeRoy Dissing said...

Reading s' comment made me think of another cool sounding word:



Phantom Scribbler said...

Annie Dillard says that "sycamore" is the most intrinsically beautiful word in the English language. I'm inclined to agree with her.

DD said...


Suz said...

Ever since I was little, I've loved the word "utensil" I remember hopping around the kitchen and singing it.

tipsymarie said...

I've always liked recalcitrant and diaphanous.

Zee said...

Suz mentions loving the word "utensil," which is one of the English words VB dislikes most. To him it sounds like something dangerous--perhaps an instrument of torture? As in: "If you won't confess willingly, we'll get out the utensils!" It's fascinating how the same word can affect people so differently. (Hey Niobe, next post should be about words we hate. Whadaya say?)

delphi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
delphi said...

Oops, that was me above.

"dodecaphonic serialism" sort of rolls off the tounge. Not a real favourite, but fun to say.

Christine said...

it is funny that you mention "milk" because that is my all time favorite word. ever.

Ms. Planner said...

I've always liked the word


It sounds like it is tumbling off one's tongue. It is the first "grown-up" word I remember consciously using in a sentence as a very young girl. I remember it clearly because my coach looked at me with this surprised expression on his face when I used it to reiterate instructions he had just given.

Adrienne said...

Luscious. Delicious. Succulent. Somnolent.

I loved this post. I usually don't think of English as a beautiful language. It's the only one I speak with any facility but so many of its sound combinations are harsh. No musicality. But your post has changed my mind.

Hannah said...


missedconceptions said...

My three favorite words to say are:

vagina dentata

Rosepetal said...

I was thinking about this on the way home from work today. I live in a French-speaking country, which means that I now speak mediocre English and although my French is pretty good for a 2nd language, in the absolute it's mediocre as well.

So on the way home, I thought of a French word which I really like the sound of but which isn't actually a very nice word: carambolage. Which means a multiple car pileup. (There wasn't one on the road, but there was a run-of-the-mill traffic jam and carambolage just popped into my head).

Often I find that the French words sound nicer than the English equivalents. One exception is rainbow. I think it's a beautiful word which matches the beauty of an actual rainbow, but the French equivalent: arc-en-ciel (arc in the sky) is just functional and ugly.

Bon said...

while not exactly entrancing according to your fine standards of cadence and sibilants, i really like saying "wallaby."

but yep, celadon is pretty nice, too...and ellipses is lovely and i keep repeating it now.

Elizabeth said...

Window Sill

Carla said...



niobe said...

Bon: I think wallby is one of those inherently funny words. Like weasel. And (though I'm less sure about this one) wolverine.

Everyone: you've come up with some really wonderful words. Ones that I would have never, ever thought of: window sill, lassitude, somnolent, carambolage..

Hannah said...

Oh, I have always loved the sound and feel of arc-en-ciel in my mouth. It seems to soar in the same way as a rainbow.

And parapluie has entranced me since I was a small child.