Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

What does it mean for a word to be beautiful? That question is what Robert Beard (Dr. Goodword) tackled when he compiled the list of the 100 most beautiful words in the English language.

After looking through the words, I am guessing he was going for sound and not meaning; otherwise, words like beleaguer and untoward surely wouldn't have made the list. But there must have been more than just sound being considered because words like bucolic and ripple just don't sound any more "beautiful" to me than other words that didn't make the cut.

I would imagine that most people would find less common words to be more beautiful than more common ones (after all, people tend to be more attracted by the things they don't encounter as often), and many English speakers would probably find borrowed words more beautiful than native Germanic words (I'm going with the foreign-is-exotic-and-thus-beautiful theory on that one). I've long been fond of words like facetious, quotidian, felicity, draconian, stygian, inveigle, fastidious, melodic, and phenomena because of the way they roll off the tongue--their meaning doesn't add beauty or intrigue (especially words like quotidian, stygian, and draconian), but they sound nice to me. It's entirely subjective, though--I can't say why one word sounds "pretty" but another doesn't. And the words that sound pretty to me probably don't sound pretty to other people. All these examples are of English, yet other languages have words that can be deemed as more beautiful than others by its speakers or by its learners. I rather enjoyed saying αληθεια and αμαξια while learning Ancient Greek (pardon my lack of diacritics on the words)--even moreso than the other words I learned.

If you read the description that's on the website, Dr. Goodword wants to help people beautify their language use, and yet I'm not sure what it means to have beautiful language. What do you think? Can words be beautiful? And if they can, what makes one word more beautiful than another? And, more importantly, what words do you find "beautiful"?

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