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A Mother for Your Mind
November 25, 2004 5:30 AM   Subscribe

The British Council polls non-English speakers for the seventy most beautiful English words. Mother comes out on top (as ever), with lullaby, oi (my favourite), and — bizarrely — hen night also appearing. I much prefer the examples of Wilfred Funk (and others): dawn, chalice and gossamer, for instance [source origin]. Beautiful words can be combined to form beautiful phrases and sometimes more. German words are also beautiful; habseligkeiten (meaning property), and such. Words can also be curious, people have observed; but also be truly awful, as a quick search of the phrases "global experience" and "leading edge" will attest.
posted by nthdegx (58 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
I suppose Cellar Door is a phrase really...
posted by benzo8 at 5:37 AM on November 25, 2004


this is good
posted by moonbird at 5:38 AM on November 25, 2004


From the text on the most beautiful German word:

They wanted to show that the German language could be every bit as romantic and glamorous as Italian or French.

So they want to show that the German language can be as romantic and glamorous as Italian or French and they choose a word meaning "property" of all things? What about Zeitgeist and Weltschmerz?

But I do agree that rhabarbermarmelade sounds pretty cool.
posted by sour cream at 5:43 AM on November 25, 2004


Do people use the word Mother? Don't they prefer to use Mum, Ma, Mama Mam etc

I wonder where 'Stepmother' finished in the Poll?
posted by Chunky at 5:46 AM on November 25, 2004


Francois Truffaut once wrote (in the diary he kept while filming Fahrenheit 451 I think) that the most beautiful word in the English language is "idyll" .
(I can't find a citation for this on google and my copy of that diary is in England - sorry)
posted by thatwhichfalls at 5:50 AM on November 25, 2004


I saw once, long ago, on a similar list, someone pointed out the beauty of the words "syphilis" and "gonorreah", and what a shame it was that such nice sounds were attached to such icky things...
posted by Meatbomb at 6:07 AM on November 25, 2004


BTW, the German runner up "geborgenheit" means "security":

"Steppen Sie nicht in mine Habseligkeiten oder ich callen den Geborgenheit welcher smeeren in ihren nasen den rhabarbermarmelade."
posted by sour cream at 6:08 AM on November 25, 2004


I'd be more interested in finding out which words sounded the prettiest to people who had absolutely no idea what they meant. As the list stands, its just the seventy words that give people the most warm fuzzies.

Also, Hen Night.
posted by Simon! at 6:17 AM on November 25, 2004


Zephyr ?!?
posted by JohnR at 6:22 AM on November 25, 2004


Syzygy?
posted by nthdegx at 6:23 AM on November 25, 2004


Simon!
First sentence of the FPP:

"The British Council polls non-English speakers"
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:29 AM on November 25, 2004


As far as German words go, my favorite is Strassenreinigungswagenherstellungsfabrik. Meaning? A factory that produces street cleaning trucks. As far as this list goes, I can't believe that brobdingnagian didn't make the cut.

But 'oi'? Oi? As in "Oi! Sod off you wankers!" Personally, I prefer it to the American "hey", but I am curious as to why they thought it beautiful sounding enough to place in the list.

Meatbomb: chlamydia belongs in that list, too. Much more melliflous than non gonococcal urethritis, I think.
posted by Tommy Gnosis at 6:35 AM on November 25, 2004


Ah, thatwhichfalls -- that was my understanding from a summary I'd read elsewhere, but the Guardian article does suggest English *learners* -- although it does hint that non-English speakers might have contributed too. I can't help but think that many of the words in the list were chosen primarily for their sound, as I don't see them coming up in basic English vocab classes...
posted by nthdegx at 6:36 AM on November 25, 2004


I note the first two words are mother passion.

hee hee hee.

mother passion.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:50 AM on November 25, 2004


nthdegx - on reading the article more carefully I see you are right, which as Simon! pointed out makes the exercise less interesting.
I wonder how they did it though - a printed list of words in standard English spelling? A list of words phonetically transcribed into the first language of the test subjects? Recordings of native English speakers? If the last one, was there any allowance made for accents? The word "alright" sounds much more attractive to me when said by an Australian than by someone with a BBC accent.
Simon! many apologies for jumping to conclusions - you read the article closer than I did.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:59 AM on November 25, 2004


What, no 'summer'? The sibilant beckoning, that languid hum in the center, the exhale on the r leaving lips slightly apart, with the feeling that it could go on forever ...
posted by thinkpiece at 7:06 AM on November 25, 2004


Don't sleep on the collection of word oddities link, though. Better than the Guardian article, in my opinion.
posted by nthdegx at 7:13 AM on November 25, 2004


Well, my favourite word is Banjo.

I have no idea why. It's also one of my favourite names. I've met someone with Banjo as a first name as well as a few who have it as a surname.

My partner put her foot down when it came to naming our son. I can't think why. She wasn't too keen on Magma either....
posted by davehat at 7:20 AM on November 25, 2004


Some details on the German word 'Habseligkeiten':
It doesn't just mean 'property', it's more 'stuff that is not necessarily viewed as precious by most people, but nonetheless held dear by the owner', like things a child collects in its pockets, the belongings one rescued when the house was destroyed, etc.
The jury liked that it is a combination of 'Hab(e)' = 'belongings' and of 'Seligkeit' = 'blessedness', which is a nice contrast. Obviously, some didn't like the choice from a PR angle...
posted by ltl at 7:35 AM on November 25, 2004


I recently rediscovered one of my favorite words: shmegma.

milk, spelled backwards, is klim, and that just sounds gross.

That is all.
posted by ashbury at 7:40 AM on November 25, 2004


Estonian is full of beautiful, if strange words. In my first ever lesson, we were taught lasteajakasvataja - nursery nurse, or more literally, "grower in the garden of children" (laste=children, aja=garden, kasvataja-one who grows things).
Always thought that was cool.
posted by penguin pie at 7:52 AM on November 25, 2004


Phi Shmegma Caligula is a fraternity even I might join.
posted by Eekacat at 8:00 AM on November 25, 2004


(prolly smegma, ashbury)

"looking up rude words in a dictionary" should have a wonderfully technical name all of it's own so that parents can accuse wee teenagers of it in comfortable pomposity. Finding out later that someone else knows what you did and you can't do anything about it has always been a terrible punishment. (evidence)

And woe is me! Did no one suggest diaphanous, peregrine or, indeed, head?
posted by NinjaPirate at 8:00 AM on November 25, 2004


I would never have thought of "oi" as an English word...

I nominate "maniacal."
posted by rushmc at 8:21 AM on November 25, 2004


I stand corrected, ninjapirate.
posted by ashbury at 8:23 AM on November 25, 2004


#43: if

If? If?! In what way is this attractive? The sound is that of someone blowing a fly off his lip.

I find it hard to believe these words were chosen by sound alone, because "mother" could hardly beat out words like gossamer, sultry, oblique, or tantamount. It must be a combination of meaning plus sound, and even then Mother fails to resonate in any way with me but then again it may be the way I feel about my mother.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:32 AM on November 25, 2004


no "bulbous bouffant" ?
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:14 AM on November 25, 2004


macadamia!
posted by phirleh at 9:48 AM on November 25, 2004


James Joyce thought that 'cuspidor' was the most beautiful word in English. It's very appropriate. He was a master at making disgusting things sound heavenly.

My favorite word is probably paralipsis. If not that, then boustrophedon.
posted by painquale at 9:54 AM on November 25, 2004


Points for smithereens, flabbergasted, etc., but what--no arugula?!

(A small observation: See what a nice, thoughtful crowd a thread like this draws? Not a troll to be heard, they're not the slightest bit interested, not even to growl "AHOO-GUH-LUH" from beneath a nearby bridge.)
posted by Shane at 10:10 AM on November 25, 2004


German's such a cool language. I don't understand it at all, but I love listening to people speak in Fassbinder movies.

I don't think I have a favourite word. I like "esoteric." I've always really like "cunnilingous" too. And "shadow." (The word, I mean.) Favourite Spanish words: "alma" (soul), "lejos" (far away), "tocar" (to touch, to play (as in an instrument)). Favourite French word? I don't know, I'm kind of rusty. "Pomme" is a fantastic word though.
posted by SoftRain at 11:19 AM on November 25, 2004


If we're going in that direction, my favorite French word is also my favorite word ever: "pamplemousse." "Grapefruit," it's English translation isn't a bad word either, but "pamplemousse" is where it's at. Say it out loud if you don't believe me; you'll come around once you do.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:35 AM on November 25, 2004


Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolanyi made a pastime out of this: make a list of the ten most beautiful words.

His own list: láng, gyöngy, anya, osz, szuz, kard, csók, vér, szív, and sír (if you're curious, that's flame, peral, mother, autumn, maiden, sword, kiss, blood, heart, and grave).

Paul Valery's French ten: pure, jour, or, lac, pic, seul, onde, feuille, mouille, and flute.

Taken from here, where you can find other Hungarian lists if you're so inclined.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:52 AM on November 25, 2004


Heroine. Azalea. Thalidomide (just try saying it and pretending it's the name of a flower of something). Lunar.

In The Singing Detective, Dennis Potter nominated elbow and primrose. (The very fine UK band Elbow took their name from this, btw.)
posted by jokeefe at 12:12 PM on November 25, 2004


A couple more: Pearl. Sublime. Liminal.

And of course, the phrase Woody Allen nominated for the most beautiful in the English language: "It's benign."
posted by jokeefe at 12:14 PM on November 25, 2004


Usage is everything. George Bush has destroyed the words freedom, peace, and liberty. He and the terrorists have left their bloody fingerprints all over explosion, smithereens, and hodgepodge. Paradox and delicacy are likely too subtle and effete for him, but he’d better not start messing with banana and pumpkin. Number 62 is a typo—oi is supposed to be oil, I guess ;^) What’s hen night doing there? If you count two words, how about sweet dreams or fuzzy pickles? (All right is always two words, thatwhichfalls) Infinity should be on, but, like many brand names, it was better before the cars came along. There’s no justice.

I think wow deserves a spot. It can express so many emotions, depending on the tone of voice. Best whispered very slowly at something magical or beautiful. It’s a palindrome even upside down and front to back (mirror image). I’ve always thought WOW would be a great name for a bistro. You’d be able to read it on both sides of the window, reflected off the cutlery & glassware, and taste it inside. It surely beats gum or cute. Was Britney Spears on council?

IMO the best words of all, like the best artworks, come from children. They have incredible originality and a fragile Zen quality, like something small, ephemeral, and beautiful you’ve seen in nature. Hostible, resanot, breadeye, bushmust, clook. Kids also have a great take on standard words:
"Dirt is like brunch, but between dinner and dessert."
“When you say moths, you bite your tongue—but just a little bit.”
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:42 PM on November 25, 2004


It's disappointing when some words are pretty but ruined by their meanings (the extreme case being "diarrhea")
posted by abcde at 1:39 PM on November 25, 2004


Um, abcde:
Gonorrhea has been praised for the way it runs off your tongue
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:03 PM on November 25, 2004


Consanguinous. Aether. Grandiloquent. Lexiphanicism.
posted by exlotuseater at 2:07 PM on November 25, 2004


I'll see you, and raise you a nubile sphygmomanometer.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:15 PM on November 25, 2004


*throws "supererogatorily numinous" into pot*
posted by exlotuseater at 3:00 PM on November 25, 2004


Tungsten
posted by leotrotsky at 3:15 PM on November 25, 2004


Cabbaged and fabaceae, each eight letters long, are the longest words that can be played on a musical instrument.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:30 PM on November 25, 2004


I see your nubile sphygmomanometer, and raise you a susurration.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:43 PM on November 25, 2004


I love that page. this link and this one are good too. (both previously posted on MeFi, I think.)
posted by exlotuseater at 3:54 PM on November 25, 2004


“Sorry for shouting; it cut and pasted that way,” he said justificatively. "I think I might need my sphygmomanometer back" he said purposefully, his face fuchsia, his philtrum fasciculating.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:39 PM on November 25, 2004


.kobayashi. Isn't the English word for pamplemousse gralefrit?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:04 PM on November 25, 2004


tumescent
episcopalian
cornucopia
posted by amberglow at 5:35 PM on November 25, 2004


milk, spelled backwards, is klim, and that just sounds gross.

Ashbury, are you aware that Klim is a popular powdered milk product sold in the UK? Bears some faint resemblance to Horlicks, though that would be a real insult to Horlicks.
posted by randomstriker at 5:45 PM on November 25, 2004


Isn't the English word for pamplemousse gralefrit?

grapefruit and gralefrit are both equally cromulent.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:11 PM on November 25, 2004


ltl: Some details on the German word 'Habseligkeiten':
It doesn't just mean 'property', it's more 'stuff that is not necessarily viewed as precious by most people, but nonetheless held dear by the owner', like things a child collects in its pockets, the belongings one rescued when the house was destroyed, etc.


Ah, those Germans have a word for everything, don't they?
posted by sour cream at 6:22 PM on November 25, 2004


I take exception to the "as vivid as spectres" phrase under the beautiful phrases link.
posted by trappedinabay at 7:05 PM on November 25, 2004


trappedinabay: I take exception to the "as vivid as spectres" phrase under the beautiful phrases link.

yes...the list is also missing "fountain of blood", no?
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:30 PM on November 25, 2004


The beautiful poems list was saddly lacking - for just plain sounding beautiful, meaning be damned, how can you not include Pied Beauty?

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.


(Also, kumquat as one of the ugliest words? I object!)
posted by blahblahblah at 9:54 PM on November 25, 2004


As far as German words go, my favorite is

... punktmatrixdrucker. It means "dot matrix printer." I was so enamored of the word that I cut it out of a printer box and attached it to my car when I was a young nerd in the early '90s.
posted by kindall at 1:51 AM on November 26, 2004


i once asked a german friend of mine what her favorite word in english was, i was a bit surprised that her response was "lobster."

runner up : hippopotamus.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:24 PM on November 26, 2004


cuspidor
posted by synaplex at 1:05 AM on November 27, 2004


UbuRoivas: Yes, it is. What's with that? I mean, really.
posted by trappedinabay at 8:54 PM on November 28, 2004


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