What we consider beautiful is subjective, but there are some English words that language lovers have reached a kind of consensus on regarding beauty.
A unique combination of vowel and consonant sounds, coupled with a nuanced or associative meaning of a word, can create an aesthetically satisfying phonologic harmony and musicality.
However, just as excessive explanation can strip the humor from a joke, we risk dulling the experience of hearing, speaking, and reading beautiful words with too much analysis. Best to jump right in and see what we’ve uncovered.
What are the most beautiful words in English?
In 2004, the British Council asked this question to approximately 40,000 non-native English speakers in 46 different countries. According to the British Council, the top ten most beautiful English words from a non-native speaker’s perspective are:
In a different kind of assessment, a distinguished lexicographer and the originator of the Reader’s Digest Column “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power”, Wilfred Funk, compiled the following list of the most beautiful words of the English language:
Finally, in an informal survey of several language professionals around the ALTA offices, we found an interesting pattern. Several of the the most beautiful English words, as deemed by ALTA-ites, are actually loanwords from foreign languages, which is probably just a reflection of the multilingual atmosphere, but could also be indicative of English’s constant expansion.
Also, for whatever reason, we tend to favor words that showcase ‘S’ and ‘Q’ sounds, and we rely more on the musicality of a word than it’s associative meaning (with the exception of a savvy fashionista whose top ten included sale and free shipping). Here are our finalists (in no particular order):
ALTA finalists for most beautiful English words:
a small globule of gas in a thin liquid envelope
[Russian loanword adapted by Nabakov] something that is in bad taste; trashy
having keen mental perception
sheer, light, and translucent
[Spanish loanword] the mysterious power of a work of art to deeply move a person
a soft murmuring or rustling sound; a whisper.
given to using long words
[French loanword] a feeling of oppressive boredom
[German loanword] A double, or look-alike person.
brilliant and lustrous; producing a multitude of prismatic colors
pertaining to trees
a rhythmic flow of sequential sounds
smoothly or sweetly flowing
the most perfect embodiment of something
a lustful desire
[Dutch loanword] the warm, comfortable feeling of being with people you love in a cozy place.
[Portuguese loanword] longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.
If any Beyond Words readers wish to amend the list, feel free to leave a comment!