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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Comments

  1. @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.

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  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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”?

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

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  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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?

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  15. 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.

  16. 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 !

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