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Recently I've had a few people mention that the phrase "cellar door" is beautiful. I don't see what makes this so - it's not anything ironic like "driveway" or "parkway" so what makes this so beautiful?

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It has something to do with the how the sound activates neural pathways in your brain, but I couldn't begin to explain, and I'd guess it's not true for everyone. –  Matt Эллен Feb 18 '11 at 17:36
There is—we shouldn't be surprised—an entire Wikipedia article: Cellar door. I'll leave it for someone else to answer, if there really is an answer. :-) (I still find cellar door hardly pleasing, though "Selador" is, somewhat, and the other lists are much better, subjectively speaking: F. Scott Fitzgerald's whip, snap, bumpkin, dark, more, wine, ineluctable, pale, Garbo, clandestine, and Wilfred Funk's dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, melody. –  ShreevatsaR Feb 18 '11 at 17:45
I don't find it pleasing either. As to why some do? Well, there's always Rule #34: "If it exists, there is porn of it." –  horatio Feb 18 '11 at 18:54
@Marco did you ask the people who mentioned it why they think it's beautiful? –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 18 '11 at 19:34
I have to post this! xkcd.com/853 –  mplungjan Feb 18 '11 at 20:38

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

CLARIFICATION: Tolkien is considered by many (including me) the author of this observation.

There are definitely some comments above, and it's only my OCD need to not have unanswered questions on this board that compels me to answer, but here goes:

I think it is the combination of two factors: a smooth ellision of vowel sounds from one to another, and that that ellision is downward.

First of all, consider that Tolkien is (most likely) referring to a posh British vowel pronunciation. A nasal, Midwestern American pronunciation of "cellar door" is positively grating. So here's what we're looking at:


If you look at yourself in the mirror pronouncing this, your jaw moves smoothly downward as the phrase progresses. If you reverse the order ("Duracell" is a fair approximation), you have the same progression, but in the opposite direction, and it's not as pleasing...I can't say precisely why.

Ultimately, I think we're stepping into the murky waters of evolutionary psychology, but I think that at least part of the appeal of "cellar door" is the smooth transition of vowel sounds, and the fact that the consonants don't get much in the way.

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@Jonik - muchas nachos. –  Chris B. Behrens Feb 21 '11 at 16:40
If you look at the Wikipedia page, you'll see that it long predates Tolkien: the first mention that has been traced is from 1903, when the idea is believed to have been already current. It was mentioned by famous people like Mencken in 1920, Dorothy Parker in 1932, etc… Tolkien's essay was only written in 1955. Besides, many/most of these people are Americans, so the "posh British vowel pronunciation" theory cannot work for its origins… –  ShreevatsaR Feb 21 '11 at 19:45
I really thought it was from the Poison song "... Lock the cellar door, and, Baby, talk dirty to me." –  fredsbend Apr 9 '13 at 21:52

protected by Jasper Loy Aug 18 '12 at 23:55

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