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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33 Comments
  • The Purple Cow
    Posted at 04:00h, 21 January Reply

    Gezellig is Dutch, not German.

  • Manny
    Posted at 11:07h, 21 January Reply

    @Purple Cow-

    Thank you for pointing out our error! We were thinking of the German loanword ‘Gemuetlichkeit’ but decided that Gezellig is more enjoyable to say, even if it hasn’t been adopted as widely as Gemuetlichkeit.

  • Pingback:5 More Difficult Words to Translate
    Posted at 12:05h, 01 May Reply

    […] This Portuguese word was also featured in our most beautiful words post a while back. It refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and […]

  • David Govett
    Posted at 01:58h, 02 May Reply

    “summer” gets my vote.

  • Mb
    Posted at 00:02h, 24 June Reply

    I wish i knew how to use saudade. perhaps the part of speech a word is could be included with words in posts

  • Michael
    Posted at 07:39h, 25 June Reply

    I really like the word sesquipedalian. A while back, my family started describing one of my sisters as being rather loquacious, so I said I was more given to sesquipedalian loquaciousness.

  • Z
    Posted at 03:34h, 23 September Reply

    In addition to Dutch, “Gesellig” is found in modern German as well, and traces back at least to Middle High German. The meaning is identical. While ‘gemuetlichkeit’ is due to your location (furniture etc.), ‘geselligkeit’ is elicited by the people you are with.

  • Peter H
    Posted at 05:13h, 13 October Reply

    A good list, but may I correct your definition of ‘Diaphanous’.

    Diaphanous things allow light to pass through them, so they are entirely translucent. Perhaps you meant “… almost transparent”?

  • Manny
    Posted at 06:26h, 13 October Reply

    Thanks, Peter!

  • Moses
    Posted at 22:49h, 18 January Reply

    I think ‘aubade’ is beautiful, and ‘aurora’, too.

  • Mark Philip Venema
    Posted at 12:51h, 08 November Reply

    Thanks for this post. So happy to see both ‘Gezellig’ and ‘Saudade’ on the list. My parentage is from Holland and my wife is Portuguese.

    The only word unfamiliar to me were ‘Epythymy’ and ‘Susurrus’ … which are truly beautiful words!

  • Kathy Quimby
    Posted at 16:20h, 08 November Reply

    Thanks for clarifying why gezellig is on the list instead of gemuetlich, because I wondered. I’d agree, gezellig is lovelier on the tongue.

    My favorites are diaphanous and mellifluous, for the combination of meaning and sound.

  • YoghurtLover
    Posted at 17:54h, 08 November Reply

    I’m not sure that many ladies will think the word thrush sounds beautiful.

  • Pingback:“The Most Beautiful Words In The English Language” | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...
    Posted at 00:34h, 09 November Reply

    […] resources “The Most Beautiful Words In The English Language” is an older post from the Alta blog which shares what English Language Learners and native-English speakers think are the most […]

  • Pingback:David Burke's Expanding World
    Posted at 19:40h, 10 November Reply

    Look at Altalang Blog site for some ideas on the beauty of words: at Altalang Blog site for some ideas on the beauty of words: https://www.altalang.com/beyond-words/2009/01/08/the-most-beautiful-words-in-english

  • coming by
    Posted at 16:40h, 01 February Reply

    it’s not “Poshlust,” but more like poshlost’. It’s no “Nabakov.” It’s Nabokov.

  • Peatjam
    Posted at 14:57h, 08 February Reply

    Where the heck did the word epythymy come from? Did this word exist before this popularity contest? All searches only return this site or someone using it as their name. It’s also not in the OED or my handy-dandy Websters.

  • saleem.khan
    Posted at 05:53h, 08 May Reply

    good words

  • keith
    Posted at 19:46h, 17 June Reply

    It was suggested that “MEMORY”was selected after mother over celophane. I hope I spelled it correctly.

  • Akshaya Kumar Jena
    Posted at 15:27h, 21 June Reply

    Is not “beauty” the most beautiful word after the word “mother”?

  • Akshaya Kumar Jena
    Posted at 15:46h, 21 June Reply

    My list of other beautiful words encompasses the following twenty:luscious, delicious,cynosure,cornucopia, aura, grace,bloom, poise, elan, zest,romantic,lovey-dovey, dream,debonaire,scintillating, evoke,enthusiasm, thrall,fantabulous and majestic.

  • ButterKit
    Posted at 18:46h, 20 December Reply

    “bobolink” seems jarringly out of place in that list…

  • Adam Winters
    Posted at 16:43h, 24 December Reply

    … My girlfriend’s last name is Saudade. I just hope it doesnt take on that meaning anytime soon.

  • Christine H
    Posted at 12:36h, 19 January Reply

    My favorite word is “plenipotentiary.”

  • Marina C
    Posted at 16:48h, 24 January Reply

    I’m portuguese and I’m very proud to see that beautiful word “saudade” is on the list. In fact, I use it almost everyday to tell my boyfriend how much I miss him, because we’re far away from each other. That’s a really meaningful word to me. I also loved “susurrus” because it sounds like “susurro” in portuguese, with the same meaning.

  • BUBSYMAREE
    Posted at 21:12h, 10 April Reply

    I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE ORIGINS AND MEANING OF :

    Epythymy
    a lustful desire

    CAN YOU GIVE ME ANY REFERENCES? I CANNOT SEEM TO FIND ANYTHING?

    • Despoina
      Posted at 13:01h, 28 October Reply

      I know that question was years ago but never is too late.
      Epythymy is a greek word “επιθυμία”. It is consisted of the preposition “epi-” and the word “thymos”.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thumos

  • den555
    Posted at 15:47h, 13 November Reply

    sylph

  • Miss Amy
    Posted at 16:21h, 04 February Reply

    Gesellig happens to be one of my most favorite words.

    MB. Funny that you mentioned saudade.

    I found this a few minutes ago before reading this thread.

    Saudade was once described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again.

  • Word Weaver
    Posted at 08:07h, 05 March Reply

    I have always loved the word “serendipity”.

  • Gavin Fernie
    Posted at 10:07h, 30 March Reply

    I am a self confessed ‘sesquipedalian’. The English language is so rich in words from so many other languages and language roots that it is very tempting to slip into sesquipedalian loquaciousness lest one slumps into unfettered morbidity. Oh dear, here I go again !

  • The Polsonator
    Posted at 09:17h, 11 July Reply

    The best word is the full chemical name of titan. Type it in.

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