Is it possible to fully separate a word’s sound from its meaning—to value words solely for their music? Some poets come close: Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery. Rare phonetic metaphysicians. Surely we all do this when we hear words in a language we do not know. When I first encountered the Spanish word entonces, I thought it was the most beautiful three syllables I’d ever heard.
I still thought so, despite some disappointment, when I learned it was a commonplace adverb meaning “then,” not the rarified name of some magical being. My reverence for entonces will not impress a native Spanish speaker. Since I do not think in Spanish and struggle to find the right words when I speak it—always translating—the sound and sense of the language run on two different tracks in my mind.
An example from my native tongue: the word obdurate, which I adore, became an instant favorite for its sound the first time I said it aloud, before I’d ever used it in a sentence or parsed its meaning. It’s not a common English word, however, and maybe that makes it special. A word like always, which has a pretty sound, rarely strikes me as musical or interesting, though non-English speakers may find it so.
Every writer has favorite words. Some of those words are ordinary, some of them not so much. David Foster Wallace’s lists of favorite words consist of obscurities and archaisms unlikely to ever feature in the average conversation. “James Joyce thought cuspidor the most beautiful word in the English language,” writes the blog Futility Closet,” Arnold Bennet chose pavement. J.R.R. Tolkien felt the phrase cellar door had an especially beautiful sound.”
Who’s to say how much these authors could separate sound from sense? Futility Closet illustrates the problem with a humorous anecdote about Max Beerbohm, and brings us the list below of philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 20 favorite words, offered in response to a reader’s question in 1958. Though Russell himself had a fascinating theory about how we make words mean things, he supposedly made this list without regard for these words’ meanings.
So, what about you, reader? What are some of your favorite words in English—or whatever your native language happens to be? And do you, can you, choose them for their sound alone? Please let us know in the comments below.
David Foster Wallace Creates Lists of His Favorite Words: “Maugre,” “Tarantism,” “Ruck,” “Primapara” & More
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5 Wonderfully Long Literary Sentences by Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald & Other Masters of the Run-On
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Regarding the acquisition of a second language, I recommend praying the rosary in that language. At many Catholic churches, the seniors still pray the rosary before mass. At first you will find it hard going, of course, but soon you will be able to keep up with the ladies, and your tongue will get used to the necessary positions. Your accent will be authentic. My Spanish is still in its infancy, but heads turn when I speak it because I sound just like a senora from Guadalajara, yet from the looks of me, that’s impossible. It’s very fun. Besides, you will get many spiritual benefits from the exercise, and pick up vocabulary easily. After a while, I was participating in all the processions in the church and joined the choir. A Christian already knows the bible stories so one can put together quite a lot.
Onamatopoeia. And chimes. And frisson
For various reasons: clerisy, spanghew, petrichor, quaquaversal, syzygy.
This immediately reminded me of the almost entirely unknown anecdote about Mahatma Ghandi. It appears, though one hears almost nothing about it, today, that the soles of Ghandi’s feet were so blistered by his long pilgrimages and insistence of going bare footed, that callouses of one inch thick caused considerable alarm to others when they encountered him, and sometimes noted this surprising feature, which some thought also caused him to hunch forward in order to walk more lightly. It, of course, also caused him to appear even more debilitated. Because of his many long fasts, combined with prolonged spiritual meditations (he was a devout Hindu practitioner, of the mystic tradition) to call attention to the abuses of the British occupation within, and abuses upon the Indian nation, he was also frighteningly “flesh deprived” in his appearance, and also prone to very fragile health fluctuations, throughout his life. Some speculated that this practice of serial, near starvation may also have contributed to a seriously unpleasant odor to his breath, which interfered, considerably in his encounters with the many state officials from around the world, even after independence was gained for his country. This confluence of personal characteristics conspired to prompt a British scholar, personally familiar with Ghandi to coin that, now very well known term best describing his persona as the, Super-calloused-fragile-mystic-hexed-by-halitosis!
Tell that to your middle school age children, or students, and they’ll remember it their whole lives, as I do, after hearing it from my ninth grade Civics teacher, Mr Bosco, at North Miami High School, in Florida in 1964, or ’65.
Loge (or luge)
Tasty words make me happy in my face. I think these are delicious:
windchimes (ok, possibly two words glued together but it’s the only way “wind” pleases me)
I’m hungry now. Hungry for wordsies.
I love the sound of this word too,but it’s onomatopoeia not Onamatopoeia…cheers
Note.. as a kid the word “I” fascinated me because it was at once a word and a letter… and Everytime I thought about it too long I would completely forget how to spell it … and once forgot the word altogether!
Cliche, juxtapose, serendipity, epistemology, epitome, pinnacle stoichiometry, hinge, phenomenology and many more.