Word lovers can be an odd bunch. We get stuck on words – repeat our favorites out loud too often, sing them, roll them around in our mouths like marbles. We sneak big words into conversation when smaller words will do – just to test their reality out in the world. We give friends and family out-there nicknames because we like their staccato or assonance. Some of our favorite movies, books and poems can be boiled down to a few word choices that blew us away. (Song of Myself’s “barbaric yawp” or Fight Club’s “I am Jack’s…”) Word choice affects us in ways we might be embarrassed to admit – it dictates what websites we visit and don’t visit (sorry Microsoft, The Sopranos owns the word bing). It tells us what brands we choose to buy (Adidas > Asics) what bands we listen to (Arcade Fire, Velvet Underground) and might even decide more mundane things like the car we drive (Corolla is the all-time bestseller – love that word).
What makes a word beautiful? To borrow from Lee Thornton, words have three forms of existence: the sonic (its pronunciation), the aesthetic (its shape) and its meaning (both objectively and the way we feel its meaning). Our favorite words either shine in one category, or hit a home run on all three counts. Often onomatopoeia plays a role, giving our favorite words that little something extra when they exude their meaning in their pronunciation. I won’t even pretend to make a list which is in any way objective. Instead, here are my top ten, starting at #10 (I didn’t want to mar the words with numbers). I hope this adds some words to your favorites list. If you have a minute, please return the favor and add your favorite words in the comments. Bonus points for explaining your love.
Because its sound suggests the serene sea it describes. Spanish one-ups it with ‘tranquilo’ giving it more balance.
An ancient word from the Greeks dolled up to describe catalysts to the procreant urge of the world.
No word better represents our inability to nuance, describing most anything with a word meant to classify only the most daunting.
A dirty Biblical word in academic clothing, it lets us label things as so many things need to be labeled these days: masturbatory.
The most beautiful word for madness, with a whiff of the euphoric. Aesthetically and sonically sublime.
A word impregnated by every meaning under the sun – entire sentences can be built out of it, entire books use it as a fulcrum. For centuries it’s the single word that guarantees reaction.
Sound it out – it turns like the gear powering the steamroller it represents.
An impossibly onomatopoeic word, the very boundaries it describes represented by the “l” at either end of it, and the space it occupies sang by the way it’s breathed.
Like its definition, a word that sounds too perfect for this world – too delicate, wispy and insubstantial. Catching it in prose, it feels like seeing a rare specimen in captivity. Saying it sounds like breathing out stardust.
The most beautiful word in our language – aesthetically (it dips under to rise again), sonically (the consonant hardness of the P carried through by the whisper of the suffix) and in meaning (a drug that banishes grief through forgetfulness). As old as Homer and only made more beautiful by the passing millennia.