Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Cellar door'--and more.

I just came across an article in the New York Times which examines one of the weirder memes in English letters: the alleged beauty of the word "cellar door." Most of my readers probably read this somewhere in Tolkien's lectures, if they know about it all. But Tolkien wasn't the first to say it. In fact, as I have learned to my astonishment, "cellar door" has been a hardy little meme for a good hundred years now. Part of the meme seems to demand that you not tell your readers where you came up with the claim, or else offer a suspiciously vague story of some unnamed Spanish guy or famous professor who first noticed the word's beauty.

I feel bound to mention that Michael Gilleland of "Laudator Temporis Acti" wrote a post about "cellar door" last year, in which he cites many of the sources used in the NYT article--and a couple of others, among them the original Tolkien quote. Turning to Wikipedia, you will find it cited in Tolkien and Mencken, as in the other articles; but you will also find an anecdote from the historian Jacques Barzun which is so elaborate that might be for real:
I discovered its illusory character when many years ago a Japanese friend with whom I often discussed literature told me that to him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was “cellardoor.” It was not beautiful to me and I wondered where its evocative power lay for the Japanese. Was it because they find l and r difficult to pronounce, and the word thus acquires remoteness and enchantment? I asked, and learned also that Tatsuo Sakuma, my friend, had never seen an American cellar door, either inside a house or outside — the usual two flaps on a sloping ledge. No doubt that lack of visual familiarity added to the word’s appeal. He also enjoyed going to restaurants and hearing the waiter ask if he would like salad or roast vegetables, because again the phrase 'salad or' could be heard.

At first I thought that the opening gambit, "I discovered it many years ago from one of my Japanese friends," was a damning indicator that Barzun was remembering something that had never really happened, prompted by coming across the meme in print. But when he gives his friend's name and adds the detail about "salad or," he makes me wonder if there isn't really something special about "cellar door." I actually do find it pleasing, although not more pleasing than a hundred other unlikely-but-lovely words like "railway" or "whitewash"--and it's a kind of touchstone for me when I think about euphony in general. I'm very much on the side of those who say that sounds affect us as sounds, even before meaning. The "meaning" of a sound like "sss" or "mmm" or "ahhh" is very broad, very general; but it is there.

Not everyone believes this, though; not by any means! If you read to the end of the "Laudator" post, you will find this little thought experiment of Max Beerbohm's:
What you take to be beauty or ugliness of sound is indeed nothing but beauty or ugliness of meaning. You are pleased by the sound of such words as gondola, vestments, chancel, ermine, manor-house. They seem to be fraught with a subtle onomatopoeia, severally suggesting by their sounds the grace or sanctity or solid comfort of the things which they connote. You murmur them luxuriously, dreamily. Prepare for a slight shock. Scrofula, investments, cancer, vermin, warehouse. Horrible words, are they not? But say gondola—scrofula, vestments—investments, and so on; and then lay your hand on your heart, and declare that the words in the first list are in mere sound nicer than the words in the second. Of course they are not. If gondola were a disease, and if a scrofula were a beautiful boat peculiar to a beautiful city, the effect of each word would be exactly the reverse of what it is. This rule may be applied to all the other words in the two lists. And these lists might, of course, be extended to infinity. The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes. Beauty sounds as ugly as ugliness sounds beautiful. Neither of them has by itself any quality in sound.
Where to begin? First of all, what a charming serial synecdoche for a certain very High Church, very English vision of happiness: "gondola, vestments, chancel, ermine, manor-house." This is not a list of beautiful words, this is a list of "words that make me think of Brideshead Revisited." But let's look at the words a little closer. What I am going to say about them is certainly not scientific; in fact, I am just going to go by my own tastes, which are of course subjective. Still: "gondola" is more amusing than beautiful, or maybe I should say amusing and beautiful. If I were going to use it in a poem, it would probably be in a tragicomic poem about how frazzled and overrun Venice is. In fact, I did once, in a bit of teenage doggerel (which I won't share). The word "gondola" has a kind of slack-jawed, blissed-out langour. It is hard to imagine a boat called a "gondola" moving very fast, for instance. "Scrofula" is a very different word. That initial "scr-" is seldom an indicator of anything sweet or lovely; and that "fu" sound connotes disgust in many languages. The feminine-sounding ending only makes the word more grotesque. As for "chancel," it is pleasing to the ear - but so is "cancer," if you can forget what it means. Maybe I'm simply hearing a rhyme with "dancer"? That's another aspect of euphony: the sound has a vague connotation by itself, but when you hear it in a word, it carries a little bur or tatter of every other word you've heard with that same sound in it. "Ermine" sounds ugly to me; it's a nubby, nebbishy little word, rather like "vermin." "Warehouse" sounds more beautiful to me than "manor-house" - not because I'm a redblooded 'Merican who has no use for aristos, but simply because the word is stronger and lovelier. It must be the Anglo-Saxon strength of the spondee, combined with the airiness of 'w' and the antiphonal contrast between the vowels 'a' and 'ou.'

Finally, it has often been noted that the word "beauty" is rather ugly. I've always wished it sounded nicer, and I feel the same way about the Latin "pulchritudo." Beautiful, pulchra. Meh. But Greek "kalos" or "kala" hits the mark for me. This touches on the tragic aspect of euphony: that some lovely things have ugly-sounding names, and that no word can contain the full reality of what it denotes. The word "girl" for instance--it doesn't sound as sweet as "lass" or as cute as "chica." And so it is vulnerable to defacement: how easy it is to say grrl. (Google it and see what you get!) Fortunately, the more delicate kinds of euphony and cacophony aren't a hindrance to our daily speech. "What a cute little girl!" "You girls are awesome!" Who is distracted by the euphony of these phrases? They mean what they mean. In poetry, though, the question of euphony is always open. "Girl" is such a basic, necessary noun that its euphony isn't always an issue; but an adjective like "sweet" needs looking after. It's not that it's played-out and Victorian; it just needs to modify the right words. The sound of it is surprisingly high and sharp; it's a thin, piercing, flute-like word. When you use it, you need to surround it with sounds that bring out the poignant sharpness, not the sugar-water thinness. How different it is from the Latin "dulcis" or its Spanish and Italian descendants. The "dolce" kind of sweet is a custardy, burnt-sugar sweetness. (Initial 'd's always taste sweet, really - the dental 'd' has some of the strength and cleanness of 't', but being voiceless it is sort of muted and velvetined - like a berry dipped in chocolate. Darn! This is making me hungry again! And now it's Lent...)

Chesterton was the one who named and confirmed my feelings about 'sweet' and 'dulce': please do read this marvelous passage from "The Thing: Why I am a Catholic." He's talking about the misunderstandings that can arise when Latin is translated gracelessly into English: "I will venture to take one example, about which I feel very strongly. Will somebody with better authority than I have announce in a voice of thunder, through a trumpet or with a salute of big guns, the vital and very much needed truth that "dulcis" is not the Latin for "sweet"?" He goes on to say about "sweet" much what I just did: "It is at once too strong and too weak a word." Finally, he applies this observation to the saccharine overuse of the word "sweet" in Catholic devotional books, which he blames on bad translations of French and Italian prayers. I got a good laugh from his witty parting remark: "I believe that this incongruous and inaccurate repetition of the word "sweet" has kept more Englishmen out of the Catholic Church than all the poison of the Borgias[.]"

So "cellar door" can sound strangely attractive, and "sweet" can sound irritating. How odd. Does anyone reading this have a "cellar door" (or a "sweet") of their own?


some guy on the street said...

Cellar doors in Numenor?
No gondoliers in Gondolin!

How is a friend like a cantaloupe?
(Are springboks friends of antelope?)

Albacore and Yellowfin
Named for the hill of Tirion?


Asphalte ... sforzando ... and neither is very svelte!



Selardor and Albacor resolved to have a battle
For Selardor (said Albacor) was naught but rhyming prattle!

I'm sorry, but all I've got right now should be rounded up to the 'pounderrel. (oh, noetry! you know?)

Meredith said...

"Albacore and Yellowfin
Named for the hill of Tirion?"

Oh, man. I'm such a big geek that I actually got that.

Enbrethiliel said...


There is an old movie with Leslie Caron as Cinderella. Her fairy godmother likes saying four words (well, six words, really) over and over: elbow . . . window sill . . . apple dumpling . . . pickle relish! I started saying those words to myself while the movie was going on and didn't really get them. They're her "cellar door," but not mine!

some guy on the street said...

Knotted wool and hither gloaming
Run upon the furzes nigh
Gilded hartshorn, welcome moonlight,
Frosted over Dunham ring.

it is, in fact, nonsense (so far as I can tell), but I rather like these sounds, mostly. (I'm undecided about moonlight ... )

Sheila said...

I think "gondola" is much nicer than "scrofula," though I admit a little slow-sounding. (Beerbohm seems only to admit of vowels sounding like anything!) The "nd" consonant cluster is one of my favorites ... no wonder it was among the limited number of clusters allowed in Quenya! Anduril, Gondor, Erundur ... *sigh*

My "cellar door" (I had never heard of this, by the way! I don't care for "cellar door" myself) from a young age was always "golden." I love the word "golden." Poe knew how to make me happy when he mentioned "molten-golden notes"! I insist that "golden" just *sounds* golden! Also, doesn't cake sound like you have a mouth full of it? I have always thought so.

And, of course, it is almost the whole point of poetry that you're saying something quite different when you use a synonym that sounds different. I can barely make myself say the word "uterus," for instance, yet the word "womb" is very hushed and comforting.

Poetry, as some famous person once said, is what is lost in translation.

some guy on the street said...

Oh, today I have run from post-baptism photos to Dr. Thursday to GKC on nonsense to Edward Lear to this delight. Whee! You can see why I had to come back here, then.

Now I should get over to my Department and do some math before everyone goes home again.

Fidelio said...

See, this is funny, because "Cheesecake" is my favorite-sounding word of all time. I like to drag out the "ee" sound in the beginning.


Meredith, I posted something for you on my blog: