Cellar door

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The English compound cellar door (RP: [ˈsɛləˌdɔ:] but see discussion) plays a certain role in discussions of phonoaesthetics; a widely repeated claim first put forward by J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay English and Welsh (1955) holds that its sound is intrinsically beautiful.


[edit] Tolkien

Cellar door is a combination of words in the English language once characterized by J. R. R. Tolkien to have an especially beautiful sound. In his 1955 essay "English and Welsh", commenting on his affection for the Welsh language, Tolkien wrote:

"Most English-speaking people...will admit that cellar door is 'beautiful', especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant."

Tolkien also once used the phrase to illustrate a point about his writing process during an interview:

"Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me - 'cellar door', say. From that, I might think of a name, 'Selador', and from that a character, a situation begins to grow."[1]

Tolkien's discourse is the most likely origin of this concept and the only documented one. Further insights into why Tolkien found the word cellar-door aesthetically pleasing can be found in considering texts in his constructed language of Quenya. The poem Namárië opens with the words:

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva.

[edit] Misattributions

This phrase has been subject to a legendary degree of misattribution. The story may be traced to 1989, with R. Lederer's Crazy English[3] alluding to a survey, conducted in the 1940s, probing the word in the English language generally thought to be the most beautiful. Contributing to this survey, American writer H. L. Mencken supposedly claimed that a Chinese student, who knew little or no English, especially liked the phrase cellar door — not for what it meant, but rather for how it sounded. Some accounts describe the immigrant as Italian rather than Chinese.

In 1991, Jacques Barzun repeated the claim, attributing it to a "Japanese friend":

I discovered its illusory character when many years ago a Japanese friend with whom I often discussed literature told me that to him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was “cellardoor.” It was not beautiful to me and I wondered where its evocative power lay for the Japanese. Was it because they find l and r difficult to pronounce, and the word thus acquires remoteness and enchantment? I asked, and learned also that Tatsuo Sakuma, my friend, had never seen an American cellar door, either inside a house or outside — the usual two flaps on a sloping ledge. No doubt that lack of visual familiarity added to the word’s appeal. He also enjoyed going to restaurants and hearing the waiter ask if he would like salad or roast vegetables, because again the phrase 'salad or' could be heard. I concluded that its charmlessness to speakers of English lay simply in its meaning. It has the l and r sounds and d and long o dear to the analysts of verse music, but it is prosaic. Compare it with “celandine,” where the image of the flower at once makes the sound lovely.[4]

The remark is attributed to "a famous linguist" in the dialogue script of Donnie Darko (2001). When asked about the origin of the phrase, the film director attributed it to Edgar Allan Poe.[5]

Bizarrely, in a recent newspaper interview with the UK Metro paper[6] Denis Norden is first asked what his favourite word in the English language is. He replies "cellar door", stating that a teacher at his school told him this and he adopted it as his — later realising the teacher said "celador". This word is associated with Norden as his TV show It'll be Alright on the Night was bought to the screen by Paul Smith, who started the Celador production company.

The UK production company, Celador, that owns the rights to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, takes its name from the term, as does the power metal band Cellador.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Cater, Bill (April 12, 2001). "We talked of love, death, and fairy tales". UK Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2001/12/04/batolk04.xml. Retrieved on 2006-03-13. 
  2. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
  3. ^ Richard Lederer, Crazy English (1989), revised edition (1998), ISBN 978-0671023232.
  4. ^ Jacques Barzun, An Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry (New Directions, 1991). ISBN 0-8112-1157-6
  5. ^ Ross Smith, Inside Language, Walking Tree Publishers (2007), p. 65).
  6. ^ Metro Newspaper,[1]

[edit] External links

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