Sunday with Zin: Euphony

Hello I am Zin and you never know where devices will take you!

What do you think is the most beautiful English word? Love? Money? Mellifluous?

How about cellar-door?

No, I am not crazy! Well, of course I am, but not about this! Cellar-door (and we will allow it as a single hyphenated word to keep things simple) is often cited as the best example of euphony which is the Device of the Day: when words have a pleasing sound!

My search for euphony led to an "On Language" column "Cellar Door” by Grant Barrett from February 11, 2010, and to the cellar-door. It seems this is a famous decision, to name this unassuming phrase the fairest of them all, and a dubious one at that! At least I think so! But they are talking about purely sound, not meaning!

Mr. Barrett in his wonderful article traces the history of the rise of cellar-door to its position of prominence. And it takes some peculiar turns: from H. L. Mencken in 1920 to Dorothy Parker in 1932 to J. R. R. Tolkien in 1955 to the 2001 movie Donnie Darko where a teacher tells Donnie (a crazy teenager with a psychotic imaginary rabbit friend):

This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful.”

But what famous linguist said this????

No one! The earliest reference Barrett found was a 1903 novel, Gee-Boy by Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper:

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.

Now wait just a minute here: does this mean that truly brilliant people like Mencken and Parker and Tolkien have been taking the word of a fictional Italian savant? Or did Cooper take it from a source that has been lost to history? I can not even find any information about Mr. (or Dr.? I do not wish to be rude or improper but I do not know!) Hooper, other than a number of editions of Shakespearean plays he edited in the early 20th century! Maybe he made the whole thing up as a joke!

I suppose we will have to wait until we find a cellar-door portal to another time dimension! Until then, the Cellar Door Theatre Company in London will have to keep the flame alive!

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