Monday, June 27, 2016

`The Most Beautiful English Word'

“Mencken thought that cellar-door was the most beautiful English word. I’ve got another, from Latin: venus volgivaga (`public prostitute,’ from Kant, of all people, Metaphysics of Morals, 49). And celadon.”

Mencken’s pick and the Latin tag do nothing for me but celadon is delicious, and I mean that almost literally. The mingling of music and meaning in certain words can make my mouth water. For celadon the OED gives “a pale shade of green resembling that of the willow.” I associate with a specific time and place – the streets of Troy, N.Y., in the spring of 1991. Spring is a long time coming in upstate New York, with snow on the ground sometimes well into May. The day was drizzly and overcast and people still wore coats and sweaters. I was covering a Roman Catholic procession in North Troy. I forget the occasion but probably it was associated with Easter. The trees along the streets were only just beginning to leaf, and the misty rain created a watercolor effect, a pale shade of green resembling willows. Odd to see in so urban a setting. Celadon evokes this coming together of trees, Spring, replenishment and a sacred occasion.

The passage at the top is from Eva Brann’s Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul (Paul Dry Books, 2004). Her first language was German, making such sensitivity to a French-rooted English word doubly impressive. I’ve overheard arguments about the most beautiful word in the language, and there’s really no point in arguing. The riches are too vast and our tastes are too various. Henry James savored “summer afternoon,” though more for the sense than the sound, I suspect. I’ve often thought molybdenum was my favorite for pure musicality, just as I think the opening lines of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a poem I don’t even particularly like, are the most euphonious. Favorite words? Scrim, adamantine, Precambrian, scofflaw, ball-peen, Guelph, rawky . . .

5 comments:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

According to Wikipedia (at least, this morning's Wikipedia), the origin of the first attribution to "cellar door" of the honor of being English's most beautiful word is lost in the mists of time -- sometime before 1903. I remember learning, in about 1954, that it was T. S. Eliot who had declared cellar door the most beautiful word in response to a letter sent to renowned writers by a high school English class -- apocryphal, I guess. I and my friends saw a connection between cellar door and stella d'oro, and we decided that its religious resonance had influenced the high church Eliot to make his choice.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Also see pictures of Korean museums of celadon ceramicware. Exquisite.

Mudpuddle said...

cartography

Dick Cornflour said...

I was once lucky enough to see a large celadon collection in a Korean museum, so I'd like to echo the comment from "The Sanity Inspector."

The green color is obtained by firing an iron oxide glaze in a kiln deprived of oxygen. This process reduces the oxidation number of the oxygen in the iron oxides, which causes the change from the familiar rust color to celadon.

The color was prized because it evoked the color of jade, which had religious significance, as well as an association with wealth and status.

As far as I know, this has nothing to do with the leafy streets of Troy, New York.

Tim Guirl said...

Eschew is a lovely word I learned as a young reader of the King James Bible.