The 100 most beautiful English words

December 23, 2010 • 6:34 pm

. . . at least according to linguist Robert Beard at alphaDictionary.  The first one on the list (“ailurophile”) is, of course, de rigueur for readers here, but my other listed favorites include conflate, desuetude (also a favorite of Hitchens), efflorescence, emollient, imbroglio, insouciance, lagniappe, languor, palimpsest, propinquity, scintilla and seraglio.

But where are kerfuffle, portentous, tendentious, rodomontade, mufti, and hauteur? (Note that several of these are taken from other tongues.)

What are your favorites not on the list?

83 thoughts on “The 100 most beautiful English words

  1. I dunno. I’m kinda partial to “friend” and “home,” myself.

    If it’s what words sound like as opposed to their meaning…I’ll go for anything Poe latched on to. “Tintinnabulation” has to top the list, with “nevermore” right on its heels.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. As a fellow admirer of Edgar Allen, I can appreciate tintinnabulation. OTOH, its association with Arvo Paert has come close to ruining it for me.

      1. Allan. Something was bothering me about the way I’d spelled his name. I suppose the spelling with “e” was forefront in my subconscious as it is a family name.

  2. What is notable is that nearly all the words on Beard’s list as well as on your list are of Latin origin and multisyllabically melliflous like those drowsy and multitudinous murmurings of Tennyson’s bees… Apart from ‘lithe’ and a couple of other words, there are no monosyllabic or Germanic words: stark, bright, fetch, catch, beck, burn, brook, tor (one of English’s few words of Celtic origin), brisk, cur, coombe, cat (!), kind, break, crack, speak, adust, brand, good, way, far, deft…. well, there’s a random list. I suppose the thing is that a multi-syllabic word can stand alone in a way that a one-syllable word can’t (though I don’t really .
    Oddly, the opposite sort of thing happens in Japanese where native words are multi-syllabic whereas words of Chinese origin are mono- or more often di-syllabic (when two Chinese characters, often of similar sense, are put together, as the Japanese like to do); I find the former both more beautiful than the latter and far easier to remember.

      1. Agreed–I noticed the same thing. Those are words that sound nice, but I wouldn’t necessarily use them too much in writing. That would be like inviting someone to your home for dinner and offering them nothing but a huge box of Godiva chocolates–one of those is plenty!

        I’m working on getting “wagamama” accepted into English. Favorite. Word. Ever. In any of the languages I speak. (It means “selfish, wanting to have everything your own way, usually applied to children, so it has extra force when applied to an adult).

        1. beautiful – to my ear – Japanese verbs: sadameru (to decide), totonoeru (to put in order), otoroeru (to dwindle – a beautiful word in English); and one beautiful noun: koe (voice)…
          Yes, I like ‘wagamama’ but I don’t find it beautiful! Keep the yokohama in front of your name and don’t change it!

      2. I agree. For my own part I like Germanic English words rather than those that are heavily latinate.

        My word is ‘bleak’.

  3. I agree with propinquity, but not with ailurophile. Leonine, though, would be fine. Serendipity oughtta be there too, and obfuscate.

    How about species names? I submit:

    Liriodendron tulipifera

    Lonicera (sp.) – I’ve long though that would make a good girls name, along with certain amino acids like alanine and perhaps valine (but not tryptophan!)

    Castanea dentata (has a nice rhythm altho I admit some additional influences on this one)

  4. I like Hitchens’s use of “invigilate.” He also uses “lugubrious,” “vile,” “piffle,”
    “wicked” and “foul” better then anyone else I’ve heard. Dawkins’s use of “frangible.”

    I also like “diaphanous,” “euphonious,”
    “reverie,” “dulcet,” “inauguration.”

  5. Nefarious and obsequious are words that, for me, immediately convey their essence. Opaque is another that is too seldom used but lends power to the sentence when it is invoked. The last I’ll offer is not at all obscure, but I’ll proffer it anyway: luxuriant… it just rolls off of ones mind and into anothers.

  6. A commenter over at Blessed Atheist had this to say regarding the word “ineffable”

    Don’t you know God’s plan is ineffable? This means that even if we eventually learn what ‘effing’ is, we still won’t be able to eff it. Or even grok it, come to that.

    Which I thought was pretty effing funny :-))

  7. I like the words “pernicious”, “tendentious”, “interlocutor”, “omphaloskepsis”, mainly because they communicate useful ideas with economy.

    I can’t make peace with the word palimpsest for some reason. The word seems rather limited as an analogy, as it seems pretty unrelated to most topics I can think of (even for evolutionary analogies, sorry Jerry!). Mostly I don’t find it compelling is because it is anything but concise. Invariably, the word brings along for the ride a contrived story about why writing over old manuscripts is relevant to the topic at hand (again, sorry Jerry!). And since the concept of palimpsests is so dated, I think it might leave the reader contemplating monks and/or scribes with scrapers more than it illustrates key points through comparison. 😛

      1. That’s excellent. My wife and I have recently been watching “Dead Like Me” on Netflix, and the mother Joy hates the word moist too. Clip here

    1. Oh, I think that ‘palimpsest’ has a definite place, restricted to be sure: the power of religious indoctrination to scrape off and overwrite a perfectly fine personality and character in a vulnerable individual (plurals,as well}.

  8. My friend the Hawaiian entomologist and his biologist wife named one daughter after Vanessa tamehameae (the Kamehameha butterfly, one of Hawaii’s two indigenous butterflies), and the other after Dianella sandwicensis, an indigenous lily. The son was named Frances (Frank), Junior.
    Those scientific names are quite mellifluous, but my favorite is:
    Osteomeles anthilidifolia.

    1. I hope they chose the right part of the name: a lass named ‘Sandwich’ would have a rather hard time of it, I should think.

    2. I’ve always liked Nyssa for a girl’s name. (Also happened to be a Dr Who companion). I didn’t use it for my daughter because I had named a couple of my kittehs Nyssa and Tegan (I had ones named Sagan and Azazel too).

    1. a lame joke of mine has been “schadenfreude is my favorite word in the english language.” and it is one of my favorite words.

  9. Words of one syllable:

    I like fill, spin, and spill.

    I like fling and flung — “You make me feel so young / You make me feel there are songs to be sung / Bells to be rung / wonderful fling to be flung”

    But I really like she for being so elemental — “she, intoxicated by thee / she has the slow sensation / that he is levitating with she”

    1. Speaking of monosyllables I have a fondness for that Singlish emphasizing particle ‘la’; I remember a friend saying, ‘Ten minutes with those Singapore boys and he’s la-ing about all over the place!’

    1. desultory generally means to unfocused or literally to jump (look at the root!) from topic to topic in conversation. Gould (in Mismeasure of Man) used it to mean essentially perfunctory (“gave a few desultory shakes”).

  10. There are some great-looking words in Finnish, too – all those I’s, K’s and N’s. Maybe the Finnish contingent could suggest some examples.

    Which reminds me that I just like the sound of Eero Saarinen. Also Ragnar Granit (Nobel laureate) – I’d hate to challenge data published by someone with a name like that!

  11. Still, all those multi-syllabic words – I suspect that Dr Beard’s poetry would send me to sleep, or should I say that it would probably be soporific. What is grand about one-syllable words in English at least, is their energy, concreteness, and qualities of evocation. Seamus Heaney is a poet who savours the sound and energy of one-syllable words, and his new collection, The Human Chain, has recently been published. It has a number of grand poems in it.

  12. I like words that have an association: that lovely pair deiseil and widdershins from an Auden’s Bucolics; crupuscule (Monk’s Crepuscule with Nelly) – and its cognate gloaming (Roaming in the Gloaming, a Harry Lauder song) and both Iris Murdoch and P D James are fond of rebarbative

  13. I rather like ‘meschugge’. It’s such a sweet sounding word, and I heard it once on ‘the Simpsons’.

  14. ###
    ‘Chanson d’automne’ a poem by Verlaine… I like this English translation ~ the way the words roll around the mouth:

    The long sobs
    of autumn’s
    violins
    wound my heart
    with a monotonous
    languor

    ###
    Monty Python:
    Palin: I say, mater, cabbage crates coming over the briny.
    Idle: Sorry dear, don’t understand.
    Palin: Er — cow-catchers creeping up on the conning towers?
    Idle: No, sorry old sport.
    Palin: Um — caribou nibbling at the croquet hoops.
    Idle: Yes, Mansfield shot one in the antlers.

    ###
    I wish Peace’N’Love & a Merry Mythmas to you all
    Michael x

    ###

  15. There are also Pneumonia and Syphilis, which should be the names of beautiful Greek goddesses but, alas, aren’t; and so nobody will name their daughters accordingly… but what beautiful sounding words – you sort of stroke them with your tongue. Among the company in my misspent and Bohemian youth was a woman called Phyllis, whom some (I was not among them) would call ‘Syph’ for short.

    1. pulchritude

      This word cannot be used. Walk up to a strange woman in a bar and say, “You are a woman of great pulchritude.” Then take a napkin and dry off your face.

  16. AWESOME POST J.NOW WERE GETTING SOMEWHERE.Heres some food for thought-Carl Sagan was widely known for his civility when confronting psuedoscience.I think He exemplifies what I mean by clever means.I was first introduced to that term by a Zen monk at SFZC.There has been much buzz about the lack of civility in public discourse.Ill agree some rough language artfully done has its place.However,we should be creative.I think another word for clever means would sneaky.Clearly,the religious delusions of humanity arent going away anytime soon.Why do they exist?Why are they so persistent?Are you in the market for giving lectures?Would you be open to giving a lecture at Harper College,maybe in tandem with Neil Shubin.What say you?

  17. My favorite is Coruscating, although I can never be sure when I see it used whether the writer means to say what it means or what s/he thinks it means!

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