“Mencken thought that cellar-door was the most beautiful English word. I’ve got another, from Latin: venus volgivaga (`public prostitute,’ from Kant, of all people, Metaphysicsof Morals, 49). And celadon.”
Mencken’s pick and the Latin tag do nothing for me but celadon is delicious, and I mean that almost literally. The mingling of music and meaning in certain words can make my mouth water. For celadon the OED gives “a pale shade of green resembling that of the willow.” I associate with a specific time and place – the streets of Troy, N.Y., in the spring of 1991. Spring is a long time coming in upstate New York, with snow on the ground sometimes well into May. The day was drizzly and overcast and people still wore coats and sweaters. I was covering a Roman Catholic procession in North Troy. I forget the occasion but probably it was associated with Easter. The trees along the streets were only just beginning to leaf, and the misty rain created a watercolor effect, a pale shade of green resembling willows. Odd to see in so urban a setting. Celadon evokes this coming together of trees, Spring, replenishment and a sacred occasion.
The passage at the top is from Eva Brann’s Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul (Paul Dry Books, 2004). Her first language was German, making such sensitivity to a French-rooted English word doubly impressive. I’ve overheard arguments about the most beautiful word in the language, and there’s really no pointing in arguing. The riches are too vast and our tastes are too various. Henry James savored “summer afternoon,” though more for the sense than the sound, I suspect. I’ve often thought molybdenum was my favorite for pure musicality, just as I think the opening lines of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a poem I don’t even particularly like, are the most euphonious. Favorite words? Scrim, adamantine, Precambrian, scofflaw, ball-peen, Guelph, rawky . . .