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What makes a word beautiful or ugly?

There is a beautiful village in the Cotswolds in England, all stone walls and flower boxes, called Upper Slaughter, and another called Lower Slaughter. The macabre place names could not be further removed from the reality of these picturesque little villages. And so, in my mind, a word suggestive of violence and death has come to be associated with a place of beauty.

Words can be beautiful or ugly, and sometimes quite deceptive, depending not just on their literal meanings, but also on the way they sound, look and are used.

The study of the inherent pleasantness or unpleasantness of the sound of words, phrases, and sentences, regardless of their meanings, has been given the title of phonaesthetics.

A famous example of phonaesthetics is the word “cellar door”, which is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the English language. While a cellar door in itself is nothing remarkable or particularly attractive, the term has inspired the names of companies and shops, a book character and even a band. Writers JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis have both noted their beauty. A word that I consider to be of particular beauty, regardless of its rather practical meaning, is “carabiner”. A carabiner is a piece of equipment used for mountaineering and connecting one rope to another, and while I am a terrible camper and climber, I have been struck by the sound of the word since I first heard it, during a cold, bleak school camp. It’s a pity I get to hear, see or say it so rarely.

Linguist David Crystal developed a matrix of attributes more common in words considered beautiful, including having three or more syllables, an emphasis on the first syllable, and the presence of particular letters that we enjoy saying, such as “l” and “m”. Notable words for Crystal included “tremulous” and “alumnus”, which do not describe notably lovely things.

Writer and Linguist Robert Baird compiled a list for his book The 100 Most Beautiful Words in the English Language, which included words with meanings that enhanced the beauty of the word’s sound, including “felicity”, “gossamer” and “leisure”, but also featuring in the list were words with less positive connotations such as “nemesis”, “untoward” and “woebegone”.

Similarly, “diarrhea” and “syphilis” have both on numerous occasions been nominated as the most beautiful sounding word in the English language.

In contrast, it appears that the combination of meaning and sound was important to many of the 7,000 people from 46 English-speaking countries in a British Council study of the most beautiful word in the English language, with “mother” topping the list.

Other popular words included “passion”, “love”, “smile”, “eternity” and “fantastic”.

Writer Henry James nominated the phrase “summer afternoon” as his favourite, clearly alluding to both its sound and meaning.

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

On the other hand, an Oberlin College and Trinity University study revealed that when we find certain words repellent, it’s not their sound but their meaning, or association with certain unattractive bodily functions that gives rise to this response. Many participants had a particular aversion to the word “moist”. While the sound of the word itself is not particularly ugly, its connotations are.

The study concluded: “As many as 20% of the population may be averse to “moist” and that such an aversion is related to age, neuroticism, and a particular kind of disgust: to bodily functions (and not phonological features of the word).”

Perhaps, in a way, this inclination operates in reverse when referring to Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter, in that the place names become imbued with the beautiful reality they represent, rather than their original meanings, and the violence implicit in the words themselves.

Even more notable than single words or phrases that strike us as beautiful is the impact of certain words when placed together in a longer form, complementing each other perfectly to create beauty. In this way, writers and poets create gorgeous, evocative, sentences, paragraphs and entire stories.

Writers who I believe have a musicality to their writing, perfectly combining words to strike the heart of a reader, are Anna Funder in All That I Am, Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude. When reading these books, I found myself regularly pausing to properly digest the beauty of a sentence, as much a result of the rhythm of the combination of words as their meanings.

The American Book Review released a list of the most beautiful lines in literature. The phrases chosen were diverse in their meanings, with some referring to pain or heartache, and others to joy and love, and quite a few, to the mundane. They included:

  • The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy
  • We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks
  • He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. —Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche
  • It was like so, but wasn’t. —Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • For a long time, I went to bed early. —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
  • The beauty here, it appears, does not lie solely in what is being said, but also in the sound and rhythm of a particular string of words. And perhaps, also, in what is not said.
  • Words can make a powerful impact on us, and like in so many things, their beauty lies in different factors, from the way they sound to the object or feeling they describe. Together, they offer us a rich and varied toolbox with which to communicate.

Books mentioned are available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK).

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