10.28.2007

The most beautiful word in the English language

What's yours?

Here are some other people's. [Hat tip to Sarah.]

I don't know what the most beautiful word in the English language is. I guess I don't tend to think of words in terms of their beauty.

I am partial to the word "shibboleth," because its meaning derives from a Biblical story, which is almost the coolest thing ever. (Almost, but not quite.) I'm also generally a fan of onomatopoeiaic words.

Hiss! Splish splash! Zip. Crunch! Bleat. Slurp! Burp. Screech! Sizzle. Crack! Boom! Crash! Slash. Roar! Bang! Meow. Oink!

You get the point. Every once in awhile, I think of an onomatopoeia that I hadn't thought of as an onomatopoeia before, and that makes me happy. What's your favorite onomatopoeia?

Another word-related activity that I enjoy? Thinking of retronyms. World War I, for example, or manual typewriter. My latest fave is "men's shiur."1 What's your favorite retronym? Can you think of one that doesn't contain an adjective?

I believe that that's enough word play for today.

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1. I rarely hear anyone refer to one, though I hear "women's shiur" more in Washington Heights than I expected to. I guess this is because most shiurim are either clearly for men only, or, in the contexts that I am used to, for both men and women. Drisha is the only place I've been in awhile where everything is understood to be women only unless "men are welcome" is noted in the catalog. (Is that what it says? Or is it the more polite "Open to both men and women"?)
I went to the Bridge Shul once for mincha on Shabbat and was the only woman there, and I left rather than attend the de-factor "men's shiur," taking place in the very man-centric ezrat gvarim. (Is that a retronym? I've never heard anyone call it that, but that's how I refer to this space.) It had been awhile since I'd been the only woman at shul for services, and I had forgotten how rotten it feels. (I've been the only woman at late weekday shacharit at OZ back when I was going semi-regularly, but I expect that, whereas I don't expect it at Shabbat mincha. Somehow, expecting it makes it more tolerable. Also, once I went a few times, I think people expected to see me there, which also somehow made it more tolerable.)

9 comments:

therapydoc said...

Is shalom in the Scrabble dictionary? I think it is!

alg's dad said...

I think it's easier to think of "the most beautiful word" in a language that is not your native language, as suggested by the Guardian article which surveyed people learning English as a second language, as well as by therapydoc's wish to nominate "shalom," which is a foreign word, even if it is now in the Scrabble dictionary. In your native language, words are so tightly connected to their meanings that it is probably hard to think of them as having characteristics like beauty. Anyway, I would be hard put to say what the most beautiful word, or my favorite word, is in English, but I can think of a number of possibilities in Hebrew: Melafafon. Acharshdapnim, which is the longest word in Tanach. Not beautiful, exactly, but interesting sounding. Chalamish. Come to think of it, these words are also either foreign imports into Hebrew, or, like chalamish, sound like they could be, because they do not have the usual triliteral structure of Hebrew words. But maybe that's not surprising. Being slightly exotic is probably a necessary component of beauty, in any context.

I have never collected retronyms, but I have collected several other categories of words. One such category is pairs of English words that have similar sound and meaning, so that almost anyone would assume they have a common origin, but they actually don't. For example, "to gore" and "gory," or "miniature" and "minimum," or "isle" and "island," or Hawaiian "kahuna" (meaning a priest in the native Hawaiian religion) and Hebrew "kehuna." I have collected at least a hundred of these pairs, including some triplets: "cut", "cutlet" and "cutlass"; and "homeward bound," "Prometheus bound" and "upper bound." Another category is pairs of words which were originally the same word, but came into English by two different routes, so they are now different words. For example, "shirt" and "skirt" (from Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse), or "menorah" and "minaret" (from Hebrew and Arabic). These are most fun when the meanings are either very close, so people say, "Oh, of course!" or very far apart, so people simply don't believe you until they look it up in the dictionary. My favorite example of the latter kind is "moshav" and "marzipan." Look it up!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

JRR Tolkien said that the most beautiful word/phrase in the English language is "cellar door"

Sarah said...

cool post. and who know your dad was such a lingui-phile (is that a word? if so-how beautiful)

alg's dad said...

"Cellar door" sounds like a country in Middle Earth, like Gondor or Mordor, so it is not surprising that Tolkien would consider it beautiful. It also sounds similar to "celadon" which might be a good candidate for the most beautiful English word. But my feeling that celadon is a beautiful word is surely strongly influenced by my feeling that it is a beautiful material, probably my favorite ceramic glaze.

ALG said...

Linguiphile makes me think of someone who loves long, flat pasta! I think that linguaphile, on the other hand, might be a proper word. My father is definitely a linguaphile, although more on the words side than the languages side, I think.

I agree that celadon is a gorgeous word. (I also like the color.) Serendipity is also a beautiful word. (That may be because I find it fun to say.)

As my paternal grandmother says in response to many traits that I share with my parents and grandparents: "At least you come by it honestly."

Sarah said...

My favorite is petrichor.

ALG said...

Petrichor is a great word! (I had to look it up, never having heard it before.) Besides liking what it means, I also like that it sounds like an ancient word but is only a little bit over forty years old.

Also, I figured out why I like the word "serendipity." It's because the first part--"seren"--is beautiful, sort of like the word "celadon." The second part of the word, "dipity," is utterly ridiculous sounding and fun to say, like the song "Dipity Doo Dah," which I learned in elementary school. Also, the meaning of the word "serendipity" is lovely. All around, a fabulous word.

Dave (Balashon) said...

I thought you might enjoy this:

shibboleth