Wednesday, March 03, 2010

nibble my crisp mellifluous flange

There's an interesting article on Language Log from a week or so ago which examines the strange and persistent trope of citing cellar door as the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, evocative (take your pick) phrase in the English language.

Naturally we've all got our own list, mine including words like mellifluous, flange, plinth, halibut (natch), vermifuge, nibble and crisp. The point with these is to try and divorce the meaning of the word from the basic phonetic pleasingness of the sound - difficult to do with words like scrofula, chlamydia and holocaust, admittedly. If you don't even attempt to do that you end up with the sort of jaw-droppingly banal list that this survey ended up with. Apparently the most beautiful word in English is mother; gag me with a spoon, as the kids used to say in the 1980s.

Anyway, most places that cite cellar door in this context append some vague "studies show" or "linguists have found" weasel words to the claim to try and legitimise it a bit, but its origins are somewhat murky, as the original Language Log article and this blog post make clear. It seems that JRR Tolkien is largely responsible for the trope's continuing persistence, perhaps not surprisingly as he was into vaguely faux-Celtic-sounding placenames (Gondor, Mordor, etc.) and cellar door sounds a bit like one of those. As if to prove the point Ursula Le Guin invented a place called Selidor in her Earthsea trilogy. And of course there is Celador the TV production company, purveyors of such delights as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The phrase also crops up in the film Donnie Darko in what could be an insignificant aside or could be The Key To The Whole Mystery; your guess is as good as mine, frankly. Anyway, the important thing is that T-shirts are available.

I'll steal a link from the Language Log comment thread and leave the last word on the subject to Emo Phillips:
When I was a kid my parents used to tell me, "Emo, don't go near the cellar door!"
One day when they were away, I went up to the cellar door. And I pushed it and walked through and saw strange, wonderful things, things I had never seen before, like... trees. Grass. Flowers. The sun...that was nice...the sun...

No comments: