Beyond Words - Language Blog

The Most Beautiful Words in English

In collaboration with Lauren, Jocelyn, Maria, and Tatyana.

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:

    mother
    passion
    smile
    love
    eternity
    fantastic
    destiny
    freedom
    liberty
    tranquility

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:

    Asphodel
    fawn
    dawn
    chalice
    anemone
    tranquil
    hush
    golden
    halcyon
    camellia
    bobolink
    thrush
    chimes
    murmuring
    lullaby
    luminous
    damask
    cerulean
    melody
    marigold
    jonquil
    oriole
    tendril
    myrrh
    mignonette
    gossamer
    alysseum
    mist
    oleander
    amaryllis
    rosemary

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:

    Bubble
    a small globule of gas in a thin liquid envelope

    Poshlust
    [Russian loanword adapted by Nabakov] something that is in bad taste; trashy

    Perspicacious
    having keen mental perception

    Diaphanous
    sheer, light, and translucent

    Duende
    [Spanish loanword] the mysterious power of a work of art to deeply move a person

    Susurrus
    a soft murmuring or rustling sound; a whisper.

    Sesquipedalian
    given to using long words

    Ennui
    [French loanword] a feeling of oppressive boredom

    Doppelgänger
    [German loanword] A double, or look-alike person.

    Iridescent
    brilliant and lustrous; producing a multitude of prismatic colors

    Ephemeral
    short-lived; transitory

    Arboreal
    pertaining to trees

    Cadence
    a rhythmic flow of sequential sounds

    Mellifluous
    smoothly or sweetly flowing

    Quintessence
    the most perfect embodiment of something

    Epythymy
    a lustful desire

    Gezellig
    [Dutch loanword] the warm, comfortable feeling of being with people you love in a cozy place.

    Saudade
    [Portuguese loanword] longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.

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