Monday, December 27

Although, Really, You Can't Beat A Good "Fuck"

ROY carries on without me linking to The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English. The comments are well worth your time.

It got me thinking about Beauty, perhaps as a way not to think about the plethora of Year End Lists, the palimpsests of Feature pages and Entertainment sections of our vestigial daily papers. It reminded me that the old Book of Lists had Somebody or Other's list of Most Beautiful Words in English, and ever' last one of 'em was something stereotypically (or quintessentially) beautiful itself: rainbow, say, or duckling, or some such shit. (Okay, I scrabbled up our copy. The list is Wilfred J. Funk's):


Murmur is lovely, and luminous, but the rest of the list is more likely to induce a diabetic coma. And I'd forgotten it was paired with a list of Worst-Sounding English Words, from a 1946 poll of the National Association of Teachers of Speech, which suffers from the reverse:


And I like flatulent and plump, but if you're going to quote me please do so in context.

What makes a word beautiful? I'm the only semi-musical member of my extended family--you're onto second cousins before you can find someone else who can sing on key--so maybe it's my lack of ear training, but I've gotta go with function over form on this one. I spent an entire afternoon in shear * bliss when I first ran into "oleaginous" (that it was used to describe Confederate Attorney General Judah P. Benjamin was just a lagniappe.) I've been trying without success for the last twenty years to free ruderal from the bonds of Botany. Some of you might've noticed that I think incontinent is the most indispensable word in English (or, at least, in the political lexicon). Is pinguid less lissome than languid?

I like (I said at Roy's) marl as a verb, and purl as an adjective. I don't know where I picked up maze; I thought I was just shortening amazed until I looked and found it was Obsolete. I like anything obsolete. I have no idea why you'd stick with truncation while trucature remains, hanging by the slimmest of threads. I like all words which condemn women whose sexuality trespassed on the divine right of males: strumpet, slattern, trollop (and the related trull!) and especially, for some reason, demirep. Similarly, catamite just provokes almost unquenchable mirth. I'll pass on dame, generally, and broad everywhere, but skirt I like, and an unknown actress on Turner Classics will get me to ask my Poor Wife "Who's the twist?" I like spoor, too; it's like a literary version of "snail trail".

Women should have tresses, of raven or russet, and more should be found in russet, or buckram, or gingham, but not bucolically.

I like gormless, feckless, and aperçu, but I can never quite remember what they mean. Rebarbative and incondite I should use more often. I can never figure out how to fit plerophory in, which causes me to overuse apodictic.

Numbles are the entrails of a deer, and fewmet its excrement. Freshlets are the edible entrails of an animal, which must be consumed soon after butchering. They were once known in the trade as Variety Meats, which is probably the worst euphemism of all time not coined by a Reagan administration official.

Corbels, dentils, and soffits. Just so my Poor Wife can laugh at my complete architectural illiteracy. Insouciant. Laodicean. Replevin. I'm fond of galloping and congenital in the medical sense, as in, "Boy, his galloping Andy Rooneyitis is totally flaring today."


* UPDATE: shear not corrected, per Brandon in comments, on the grounds that it should be preserved for all times. Plus, you know, intentional mistakes in Persian rugs an' stuff. Not that God's keeping Her Eye on this blog for signs of excessive pride.


heydave said...

The more I cogitate upon this matter, I suggest it's best served as half of a Swankster-like double noun: jazz hands!

isabelita said...

Well, I'll bet you'd appreciate "shickalacked", and "sheep shadney", which I espied in thte glossary at the end of Zora Neale Hurston's novel titled "Jonah's Gourd Vine." Oh, and this expression is terrific, and may prove useful:"God don't eat okra - Okra when cooked is slick and slimy, i.e.,God does not like slickness, crooked ways."
Thanks very much for another year's worth of guffaw-evoking commentary and intelligence. Hope the new year is not terribly intolerable.

bjkeefe said...

I spent an entire afternoon in shear bliss ...

You and Edward Scissorhands?


Sorry, couldn't resist, this being a post fussing about words and all.

bjkeefe said...

Even though your vocabulary is about 289% bigger than mine, I mean.

M. Krebs said...

...a list of Worst-Sounding English Words, from a 1946 poll of the National Association of Teachers of Speech...

Fortunately the language survived in spite of their best efforts.

Uncle Omar said...

What about chalcedonian, as in "The panopoly of fools who made up the BushII Administration acted with chalcedonian foresight when invading Iraq on credit."

grouchomarxist said...

It may not be particularly euphonious, but "clapperclaw" always gives me a warm fuzzy. (Which is, of course, exactly 180 degrees the opposite of what the object of it should feel.)

Lately, though, some of my favorite words don't even mean anything: they're Blogger word verifications I've been collecting.

Some, like "arific", "surbly" or "tribby" could almost be adjectives, while others sound like people or place names straight out of a Jack Vance novel:


Sator Arepo said...

"Jazz"? Seriously?

I can't tell if those lists...well, I don't know. "Oooo" vowel sounds, liquids, and nasals will only get you so far (unless you're in France (I hear)). Why all the hate for dentals and plosives? And fricatives are the best-names consonant group around.

verification word:


Sator Arepo said...


StringonaStick said...

They'll have to pry "jazz": from my cold dead hands, because that is a word and a music that I sincerely love. Since that list was compiled in 1946, I suspect the inclusion of "jazz" was a bit of not so veiled racism.

Larkspur said...

Or maybe they was squicked on account of "jazz" reminding them of "jizz" and related words.

It's really hard to separate sound from meaning. Like, "luminous" is beautiful, but if you blank out meaning and just listen, so is "mucus". In fact, mucus might be prettier because the "c" is like a perky surprise amid the slithery sounds.

"Fricative" is also very cool. There is a similar mid-word perkiness, although the rest of it is more astringent than "mucus" could ever hope to be.

I might have a perkiness problem, because I think the word "dingleberry" is lively and amusing, and a very good word. "Cudgel" is frightening, but only upon first impression. Repeat it often enough and it becomes hilarious, like falling down the stairs - not all the way, but just a few steps, and you don't get hurt really. That kind of hilarious. "Hilarious", btw, is funnier when pronounced "highlarious".

Anonymous said...

a great proportion of the appeal of a word on either list is the likelihood that other folks won't know it. It's just another way of lording you knowledge over others. So the distinction between the uglies and the beautifuls is artificial, too--a way to ensure that there are more lists to jaw about, and more chances for the engfish eflites to caw on about them. A phlox on both their houses, I say.

But not before I contribute my own list: Cool words that means somebody's totally toiked:


and so on--a list of words unified by the lister's inclination to vio-lance. Now to achieve some sorta satori, word-wise, we'd need a list of words that the lister thinks all mean "unnecessarily complex" but actually mean something else.


Sator Arepo said...


Some time ago I thought that "The Defenestrators" would be an excellent name for a band; but, like everything else, it is sadly already in use.

jackd said...

"That unspeakable trull!", a phrase that burbled up in my memory on seeing the word above. Turns out it's in Heinlein's Glory Road, which just goes to show. Exactly what it shows I leave as an exercise to the reader.

MR Bill said...

"Cloture" got to sounding pretty good...