#WordOfTheWeek: Cellar Door

We readers and linguaphiles often find ourselves pausing to appreciate a particularly beautiful word or phrase. We savor the feel of it in our mouths, rather like a gourmand at a five-star Michelin restaurant. We hold it up to the light to see the colors it reflects; we note it down to include in a verse of poetry. Lists of these words often include soliloquy, vivacious, cinnamon, lithe, velvety. But perhaps the most surprising inclusion for most of us has also become the catch-all term for these kinds of words: cellar door.

Anne Uhmeyer
Word of the Week

Wait, Where Did That Come From?

J.R.R Tolkien is largely held responsible for popularizing the use of cellar door as a title for the category of beautiful words. In 1955, he delivered a lecture in Oxford on “English and Welsh” in which he argues that everyone has preferences for certain sounds in language, distinct from the meanings of the words overall. He says:

Most English-speaking people, for instance, 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…
A photo of J.R.R. Tolkien sitting on the grass near a tree.
Photo Credit: Variety

Both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were fascinated by the phonetic qualities of cellar door that seemed to lend themselves to whimsy and fantasy. Lewis said in a 1963 letter, “I was astonished when someone first showed that by writing cellar door as Selladore one produces an enchanting proper name,” and Tolkien said in a 1966 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.” And these two authors were far from the only ones to explore the musicality of cellar door.

Similar opinions and uses appear in a 1905 issue of Harper’s Magazine by William Dean Howells, as well as works by H.L Menken (1920), David Allan Robertson (1921), Dorothy Parker, Hendrik Willem van Loon, Albert Payson Terhune (1930s), Norman Mailer (1967), Jacques Barzun (1991), and even in the 2001 film Donnie Darko.

Gee-Boy's front cover.

Perhaps the earliest explicit mention of cellar door as a beautiful word separate from its meaning is a 1903 novel entitled Gee-boy by Cyrus Lauron Hooper. In it, he describes a character collecting words that he loved the sound of, which included doubloon, thatch, fanfare, and pimpernel. “He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! Sensuous impression merely! The cellar-door is purely American.”

Cellar Doors and Songs in America

Why were cellar doors being spoken of so broadly in the early to mid-twentieth century? The answer lies in the intersection between nineteenth century American architecture and popular music.

Especially in the northeastern United States, houses built in the nineteenth century often included a half or full cellar beneath the foundation of the house, first mostly used to store foods like potatoes and apples during the winter, and eventually evolving into the full basements that are more common today. Since they were originally used principally as cold weather storage, the cellars had only an external door, until the late nineteenth century when the furnace became a fixture in the cellar and an internal door came into vogue to allow residents to tend it without venturing outside. The external cellar door opened at about a 45-degree angle from the wall of the house directly onto a set of stairs into the cellar, and remain a common feature of older architecture in the region and across the States.

A photo a cellar door.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1894, a popular song by Philip Wingate and H.W. Petrie called “Oh Playmate, Come Out and Play With Me” included the verse:

Say, say, oh playmate,

Come out and play with me

And bring your dollies three

Climb up my apple tree.

Shout down my rain barrel

Slide down my cellar door

And we’ll be jolly friends

Forever more more more more more

The song was a hit, and upon its success the phrase “slide down my cellar door” became a catchphrase in the vernacular of the day, with its meaning referring to a friendship or camaraderie indicative of childhood innocence, the period of life that the song is invoking. The song also seems to have become a clapping rhyme in some areas in the style of “Miss Mary Mack” which some millennials even today will recall singing on the playground. During the American Prohibition era, cellar door was sometimes used as a pseudonym for speakeasies, perhaps adding to its charm.

The sentimental and musical reminder of childhood games upon cellar doors evidently provided sufficient reflection for writers and linguists in particular to notice the phonetic beauty of words that described such a mundane object, from Hooper in 1903 all the way to modern day.

What Makes It Beautiful?

In 1995, linguist David Crystal published his paper “Phonaesthetically Speaking” in which he analyzed lists of beautiful words collected from writers and from reader polls and from an admittedly small sample size (just 625 word segments made of 377 consonant sounds and 248 vowel sounds) nevertheless discovered some interesting trends. According to his survey, the most prevalent consonant sounds in English words considered beautiful are /l/, /m/, /s/, /n/, /r/, /k/, /t/, and /d/, with a significant drop in frequency between these sounds and the rest of the English consonants. Vowels tended to be shorter vowels, with the most popular being the schwa (the unaccented neutral vowel sound; for example, the sound represented by the a in gossamer), followed by the vowels in lid, led, and lad.

A 'cellar door' scene from the movie 'Donnie Darko.'
Photo Credit: Disobedient Sounds

From his findings, Crystal noted that most words commonly regarded as beautiful conform to a majority of a long list of criteria, including the phonemes described above and including the following:

  • Three or more syllables
  • Stress on the first syllable
  • Three or more manners of articulation (for example, the /m/ sound is a nasal bilabial because it is created by pressing the two lips together and voicing through the nose)

Put more simply, English speakers seem to have a number of favorite sounds and a preference for longer words with variety in how the sounds are made. If we return to cellar door, it’s easy to see how well it fits Crystal’s criteria; it consists of three syllables, uses /s/, /l/, /r/, and /d/, which are all in our list of favored consonants and created from a variety of manners of articulation, and it has the stress on the first syllable. From a phonemic perspective, it’s very nearly a perfectly beautiful word.

What unexpected words do you find beautiful? As spring flowers around us, I encourage you to look around with fresh eyes and notice the beauty in the words we use every day. Apartment. Sarcasm. Gardener. Catalog. I’m sure you’ll find a new appreciation for our lovely language.

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