25 October 2004

Any other name

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:25 pm

The long search for the most beautiful German word is finally over, and the clear winner is habseligkeiten, which means, broadly, “stuff&#8221. Then there’s daylight (tageslicht) before geborgenheit, which apparently means “a feeling of security&#8221, and finally good old lieben. Honourable mentions include augenblick, which means “moment”; and my favourite, rhabarbermarmelade, which is “rhubarb jam&#8221, and which I choose to pronounce with seven syllables, all of which assonate.

Some might say that looking for the most beautiful word in German is like trying to find the most progressive member of the Liberal party, but I don’t think that’s fair (to German). Certainly je t’aime and te amo—or even mi amas vin—will sound more appealing to most ears than ich hab dich lieb, depending on who’s saying it. But German has its own chewy appeal, and can in fact sound very beautiful, as I hope I have suggested in my superficial treatment of Rilke.

So the Herald has asked everybody what their favourite English word is, and there are some good answers, as well as predictable smartarse ones. My favourite suggestion was maelstrom. Someone has trundled out “cellar door&#8221, which was referred to in Donnie Darko and in fact was first nailed by Tolkien:

Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is “beautiful&#8221, especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.

Of course Tolkien was famously into linguistics and is said to have got into the whole Middle-Earth thing primarily as an excuse to use all of the languages he had compulsively invented since childhood. I think the staggering popularity of the books has had little to do with their plots (which are kind of plodding and repetitive) and much to do with the languages the worlds are described in, all the Lothlorien and Mithrandir and so on. Tolkien used roots from Celtic and Norse languages, which gave his coinings these remarkable resonances and connotations—and made them sound like real words. It’s great stuff.

I personally can’t see how cellar door loses anything through its association with cellar doors. As usual, the signifier and -fied are comparably beautiful. Words like mellifluous and tranquil and gossamer always get a run in these surveys, while ones like crepuscular and gargoyle tend to come in last—suggesting that it really is strikingly difficult to separate the meaning from the sound.

James Joyce does it, reportedly nominating “cuspidor&#8221 as his most beautiful word. But most of the time I think the Simpsons were right when they pole-axed Juliet’s famous assertion so effectively:

Lisa: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Bart: Not if you called ’em stench-blossoms.
Homer: Or crap-weeds.

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