What’s the most beautiful word in the world? The answer depends on who you ask.
Many laymen, language nerds, professional linguists, poets and even cultural institutions have nominated words deemed worthy of this title, but the irony of this question is that you could probably fill an entire book with eligible contenders.
Moreover, this raises the question of how you go about deciding that a word is beautiful. Are we talking about words with beautiful meanings, or words that merely sound beautiful? Is it maybe a mix of both of those things? What’s the difference between a beautiful word and a cute word? If words had their own beauty pageant, they’d probably be graded on their contributions to world peace as well as how good they look in a bikini.
One of the most famous theories comes from Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, who proposed in a 1955 speech that “cellar door” is the most beautiful word (or phrase) in the English language. His claim was based on the aesthetic qualities of the word (divorced entirely from its meaning) — otherwise known as its euphoniousness.
Words With Positive Connotations
In 2004, the British Council commissioned a survey in honor of its 70th anniversary to come up with a list of the 70 most beautiful English words. After gathering the opinions of more than 40,000 people in 102 non-English speaking countries, they came up with the following list, the top five of which were “mother,” “passion,” “smile,” “love” and “eternity” (in that order).
It seems pretty obvious that this list of words was chosen not just for the sound of the words, but for the feelings they elicit.
While there are linguists who believe you can’t separate your reaction to a word from the meaning it elicits (think: “moist” and “cockroach”), some have also noted that we tend to prefer certain types of sounds over others. Author Karen Russell happens to have a thing for words that begin with “L,” and she’s not alone in that feeling.
“Tremulous” And More
Linguist David Crystal, a proponent of the theory that meaning and sound are inherently linked, has noted some of these patterns, too. He analyzed the consonant and vowel sounds that make up words that are widely considered beautiful, and he came up with some criteria. According to his findings, words are more likely to be thought of as beautiful when they have more than three syllables (with a stress on the first one), short vowels that are articulated in a mid or low position in the front of the mouth, the letters “m” and “l,” and consonants that are frequently used in English. The word “tremulous” meets all of these criteria.
But beyond that, things can get pretty subjective. The Huffington Post talked to five poets, and they came up with the following list: “a,” “belittle,” “clarity,” “dusk” and “ever.” Their reasons ranged from “the most beautiful words in English have to be the shortest” to “it’s a necessary fist of a word, a way to end a conversation.”
These quixotic answers are probably what we should expect from poets. And of course, we’ve only discussed English words so far.
Beautiful Words In Other Languages
What say the masses? Let’s open this up to the people and the languages of the world.
- Nakakapagpabagabag, which means “something that bothers you” in Tagalog
- Kalsarikännit, a Finnish word for getting drunk in your underwear
- Malaka, a Greek term of endearment for an otherwise useless person
- Habseligkeiten, a German word that means “belongings” (but usually in the context of something that is very dear to you)
BuzzFeed made a similar attempt when they crowdsourced Twitter users for their favorite words. Some selections:
- Hiraeth: a Welsh word that describes homesickness for a home you can’t return to, or that never was
And still, there are countless articles online (like this one, and this one) that present one author’s view of the world’s most beautiful words. Without these, I may never have known of words like eudaimonia, a Greek word that describes “the state of contentedness that comes with being a good person.” Or goya, an Urdu word for “the suspension of disbelief that occurs in good storytelling; a story that feels like reality.” Or kæreste, a Danish word for “dearest.”
Perhaps in these cases, you could argue that the most beautiful words evoke a sentiment so intangible and hard to pin down that they’ll eventually wind up in an “untranslatable words” listicle.
You probably already knew this, but there really is no “most beautiful word in the world.” As with human beauty pageants, the winner is usually determined by the individual preferences of the people judging the contest. But if “blog” or “crepuscular” is your pick, you’re probably still wrong by every objective measure.