Column: Easy on the ears


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

There’s an entire school of thinking for beautiful words. It’s called phonaesthetics. Think about words that sound nice to your eardrums. These words make your brain release oodles of endorphins. Hearing pleasant-sounding words is the aural equivalent of watching baby river otters perform a synchronized swimming routine.

There’s a word to describe these pleasant-sounding words: euphonious. Actually, the word “euphonious” is itself euphonious. How about that? Do you know what many people consider to be the most pleasing word out there? Cellar door. OK, “cellar door” isn’t one word, but it’s a compound word that isn’t smooshed together into one word. Respect the space, people! Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (two of my favorite Inklings) noted that “cellar door” is one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. If I ever start an underground spoken word appreciation club, I think I’ll name it “The Cellar Door.”

Here is a sampling of words that frequent the top of the charts when phonoaestheticians put together lists of the most euphonious words. For the purposes of this exercise, just imagine I’m reading this list to you in the voice of Liam Neeson: iridescent, solitude, luminous, lullaby, serendipity, destiny, idyllic, soliloquy and elysian. As opposed to “cellar door,” these words have incredibly positive connotations.

It’s easy to forget that our mutt of a language can be quite lovely when someone strings together a sequence of perfectly elegant-sounding prose. We’ve become accustomed to being bombarded by political polarization that presents anyone who doesn’t agree with you as an enemy. Harsh words abound (just watch your Twitter stream for five minutes). People born after a certain year can’t get along with people born before a certain year. Instead of dividing Sharks from Jets, why don’t we combine forces to form jet-sharks, the most terrifying, unstoppable air-and-sea threat you’ll ever face?

My vote for the best-sounding phrase in the English language is, “Here’s your pile of cash,” although I’d settle for hearing my kids say, “Daddy, we’re going to let you go to the bathroom alone without barging in and having a conversation with you.” I doubt I’ll ever hear either of those statements uttered in my general direction.