Monday 21 January 2013

Dylan's helicopter

In the whimsical branch of linguistics called phonoaesthetics (bear with, bear with) the English compound noun cellar door has long been cited as an example of a word or phrase which is beautiful purely in terms of its sound, regardless of any meaning. That is, phonoaestheticians have established that foreigners without any command of English nevertheless recognise something attractive in the three-syllable sequence of phonemes, from the sibilant 'c' in 'cellar' to the  very lovely diphthong in 'door'.

Cellar door. Cellar door. Cellar. Door.

Recognition of the strange and particular beauty of these two words dates back at least to 1903, although the origin is obscure. The origin, I mean, of a belief in their aural gorgeousness.

Cellar doors have presumably existed as long as cellars have, and cellars have been around for - oooh donkey's years. There are plenty of speculative attributions - Edgar Allan Poe is a popular, though unproven, source. Is it partly down to the ghostly homophone 'adore'? And the whiff of the French 'c'est la' in 'cellar'? When one says 'cellar door' aloud all kinds of nice things happen to the lips and tongue and palate - is that partially because there's a French echo in the string of euphonious sounds?

It reminds me that the camp television presenter Larry Grayson, a dead ringer for Kenneth Tynan (see blog for 17th January) had a catchphrase - "Shut that door!" - that enjoyed an unlikely popularity in the 1970s and reportedly derived from his attempts, in some unspecified context, to say je t'adore.

Other candidates? Henry James plumped for 'summer afternoon'. Dylan Thomas opted for 'helicopter'.

Cellar door. Helicopter. Summer afternoon. Cellar door. Helicopter. Summer afternoon.

No contest.

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