When you think of romance languages, what springs to mind? French? Italian? Spanish, perhaps? There’s no denying these languages are hallmarked with beautiful words that glide effortlessly off the tongue. But what about others? What about words that lack these soft sounds, but brim with beautiful meaning? Consider the German word Wanderlust (meaning “desire to travel”) or verschlimmbessern (meaning “to make something worse by trying to improve it”). Composition and definition can both be beautiful. And English is no exception.
The well-known British linguist, David Crystal, says that sound and meaning are inherently linked. He’s even developed a series of criteria for what makes a word beautiful. His work, and that of others, is all part of a field known as “phonaesthetics” — the study of beauty and pleasantness associated with words. So, whether for prose or poetry, soliloquy or sonnet, the following list introduces some of our favorite English-language words.
Meaning: Characterized by, or affected with, trembling or tremors (adjective)
This one comes from the Latin word tremulus (to tremble). Today’s spelling is adjusted to meet English suffix standards, but the word is still lovely to speak aloud. What’s more, it perfectly meets all of David Crystal’s criteria for what makes a beautiful word: It has three or more syllables, the stress is on the first syllable, and it (frequently) contains the consonant sounds L, M, S and N. (For reference, “unattractive” sounds by Crystal’s standards include Z-sounds and TH-sounds.)
Meaning: Wealth, affluence (noun)
We almost picture the open “ohh” at the start of this word dripping like a luxurious dollop of honey. You can really yawn into that vowel. Perhaps you can even see the opulent imagery as you speak it? Go on… give it a go. You’ll see what we mean.
Meaning: The act of feeling tranquil while being indoors during a thunderstorm (noun)
Admittedly, this one’s a bit of an Internet-era phenomenon. But we love it regardless. As children, many of us are exposed to the word “chrysalis” when learning about the development of butterflies and other insects. This principle of being cocooned is applied to “chrysalism” — what better description for the feeling of being in a storm?
Meaning: The quality or state of being alone, or remote from society (noun)
“Solitude” is another word that meets many of David Crystal’s criteria. It consists of three syllables, including a stressed first syllable. It also has an L in the middle, and low sounding vowels towards the front of the mouth in both the first and last syllables. An all-round aesthetically pleasing word, both in sound and sensation.
Meaning: Blissful, delightful (adjective)
“Elysian” is a prime example of a word that sounds like what it means. Fun fact: It’s also part of a street name in New Orleans. Elysian Fields Avenue is a nearly five-mile road that runs north to south through the city (and before you ask, yes — it’s delightful!)
Meaning: To call forth an especially emotional response (adjective)
Here, we see philosopher Bertrand Russell’s theory of linked meaning and sound at play. The V in “evocative” is itself almost drawn out — providing similar imagery to that first syllable in “opulence.” What do you reckon? Are we “evoking” something here?
Meaning: The state of thinking about what someone else is thinking (noun)
OK, another Internet-era word — but what a word! This is a crowd favorite in terms of popularity, both in definition and composition. Sonder might be a simple two-syllable word, but it accurately sums up something we all do at some point or another. Perhaps it’s a portmanteau of “someone” and “wonder?”
Meaning: The act of reaching a firm decision (noun)
What better word to end our list on? We particularly admire the final consonant in “resolution.” That –shun feels final and definitive — much like the definition of the word itself.
A bonus word that didn’t quite make our list, but which gets a special mention: “visceral.” No, we don’t mean the blood-and-guts kind! Visceral also means “of or relating to inward feelings, rather than to the intellect.” Although it didn’t quite make the list, it felt worthy of mention. After all, if all these beautiful words aren’t intellectual or visceral, then what are they?