Cellar Door

Dustin and I had a fabulous fall fest of our own this last week with carving a pumpkin, roasting the seeds and watching Donnie Darko. We watch Donnie Darko every year about this time, it is such a great movie and since it is set in October of 1988 it is the perfect creepy Halloween movie.

I have begun an awesome routine of wikipediaing (new word to our Enlgish vocab) movies as we watch them to find out facts about the production, the cast and behind-the-scenes info. It really enhances the movie watching experience. In Donnie Darko, Drew Barrymore plays a serioulsy post-modern english teacher, maybe a little too post modern for 1988, who is fired for a reading assigment of Graham Greene’s “The Destructors”. As she is packing her traditional I-have-just-been-fired plain cardboard box full of knick knacks from her desk, Donnie asks her why she has written the words “Cellar Door” on the black board behind her. She says to him that someone once said Cellar Door is the the most beautiful phrase in the English language. I went to wikipedia to see what she was referring to, and I love what I found:

Cellar door

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Cellar door is a combination of words in the English language once characterized by J. R. R. Tolkien to have an especially beautiful sound. In his 1955 essay “English and Welsh“, commenting on his affection towards the Welsh language, Tolkien wrote:

“Most English-speaking people…will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.”

Tolkien also once used the phrase to illustrate a point about his writing process during an interview:

“Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me – ‘cellar door’, say. From that, I might think of a name, ‘Selador’, and from that a character, a situation begins to grow.”[1]

Tolkien’s discourse is the most likely origin of this concept and the only documented one. Further insights into why Tolkien found the word cellar-door aesthetically pleasing can be found in considering texts in his constructed language of Quenya. The poem Namárië opens with the words:

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva.

Tolkien’s text contains a large number of sonorants and a paucity of stop consonants; only the brief stops /t/ and /d/ appear in the opening of his text. It contains many open syllables and few consonant clusters. Vowels are mainly monophthongs, and few diphthongs or other vowel sounds more complex in articulation appear here. These same phonetic features distinguish the English word cellar-door. Note also that Tolkien’s pronunciation of that word would not feature any rhotic sound, since he was speaking with non-rhotic accent: [ˈselə ˌdɔː].

Compare this text with another poem in one of Tolkien’s constructed languages, the evil inscription of the One Ring in his Black Speech of Mordor:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

This text contains many consonant clusters (/zg/, /θr/, /kr/) and a far larger variety of stop consonants.


Nonetheless, this phrase has been subject to a legendary degree of misattribution. The story may be traced to 1989, with R. Lederer’s Crazy English[3] alluding to a survey, conducted in the 1940s, probing the word in the English language generally thought to be the most beautiful. Contributing to this survey, American writer H. L. Mencken supposedly claimed that a Chinese student, who knew little or no English, especially liked the phrase cellar door — not for what it meant, but rather for how it sounded. Some accounts describe the immigrant as Italian rather than Chinese.

In 1991, Jacques Barzun repeated the claim, attributing it to a “Japanese friend”:

I discovered its illusory character when many years ago a Japanese friend with whom I often discussed literature told me that to him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was “cellardoor.” It was not beautiful to me and I wondered where its evocative power lay for the Japanese. Was it because they find l and r difficult to pronounce, and the word thus acquires remoteness and enchantment? I asked, and learned also that Tatsuo Sakuma, my friend, had never seen an American cellar door, either inside a house or outside — the usual two flaps on a sloping ledge. No doubt that lack of visual familiarity added to the word’s appeal. He also enjoyed going to restaurants and hearing the waiter ask if he would like salad or roast vegetables, because again the phrase ‘salad or’ could be heard. I concluded that its charmlessness to speakers of English lay simply in its meaning. It has the l and r sounds and d and long o dear to the analysts of verse music, but it is prosaic. Compare it with “celandine,” where the image of the flower at once makes the sound lovely.[4]

The remark is attributed to “a famous linguist” in the dialogue script of Donnie Darko (2001). When asked about the origin of the phrase, the film director attributed it to Edgar Allan Poe[5].

It also features in Neil Young‘s song The Needle and the Damage Done, The House that Dripped Blood by The Mountain Goats and Talk Dirty to Me by Poison. It is also used in the Lemonheads “It’s A Shame About Ray”.

Bizarrely, in a recent newspaper interview with the UK Metro paper[6], Denis Norden is first asked what his favourite word in the English language is. He replies “cellar door”, stating that a teacher at his school told him this and he adopted it as his – later realising the teacher said “celador”. This word is associated with Norden as his TV show It’ll be Alright on the Night was bought to the screen by Paul Smith, who started the Celador production company.

Just something interesting that I thought I would share on this warm autumn day.

Cellar Door.



Filed under currently reading/listening to, Nerd Alert!, rad shizzz, right?

4 responses to “Cellar Door

  1. Hum…I do think it sounds beautiful, but not as beautiful as:

    Sell her Dior!

    Also, I think you forgot the tag: “Nerd Alert” with this post!!!!

  2. thatgirlkate

    Sell her Dior?!?! Oh my gosh!
    I agreed with the “nerd alert” needing to be added. I will do that now.

  3. Very interesting article… I found you through a Lemonheads google search. I’ve heard something before about Cellar Door and Celador… can’t remember the story but if I do I’ll let you know.

    I once lived in a house with a cellar door – bloody creepy it was.

    I personally like “nuance”… although some prefer a word like “gesture”.

  4. teresap

    i do the same thing, except not to find out the behind-the-scenes stuff. i do it for “based on true story” movies. i like to get the real scoop and such. whenever paul and i see a true story kind of movie, he turns to me towards the end and says, “you’re gonna google this later, aren’t you?” what can i say? the man knows me.

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