The Language of Love

Do you have a favorite phrase or is that just me? I know you probably have a favorite word---everyone has a favorite word, and definitely a least favorite one as well---but I think I might be just that much of a geek that I even have a favorite combination of words too.

Although it turns out I'm in good company. J.R. Tolkien, for instance, was apparently obsessed with the phrase "cellar door." I did quite a bit of reading about this on Wikipedia this afternoon---honestly, it was either that or unload the dishwasher---and it was really quite endlessly fascinating. See, there are certain words, Tolkien believed, that, when uttered out loud, are "more beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful." 

(You should go and read that Wikipedia entry by the way, if only for the part about another man who loved the sound of "cellar door" so much that he even made a habit of visiting restaurants where the waiter asked him if he'd like "salad or..." because it sounded so similar to his beloved linguistic combination.)

The power of language is a funny old thing: when I worked at my old job at the magazine in Charleston, Pretty Coworker Elle and I had a running list of our favorite and least favorite words. The list was posted on the wall in our office, and everyone who visited peered at it and offered up their own suggestions. A little while before I left, though, the list suddenly disappeared overnight---was someone that grossed out by the word "moist" that they tore it down in repulsion?---and no-one could figure out what happened to it.

Then one day last year, in the middle of some sort of office renovation, my friend Pete found it, shoved---against all odds---into the bottom drawer of an old disused desk. He lovingly uncrumpled it and brought it to me in California last fall, where it now sits reverentially in the drawer of my bedside table. When some people need cheering up, they watch Oprah or eat ice cream. When I need cheering up, I look at my list.

Though it's a little too exhaustive to transcribe in its entirety, entries on the "words we love" side include brouhaha, tantamount, tupelo, erstwhile, fisticuffs, flapjack, and chipolata. "Words we hate" is almost twice as long and features almost every horrific abomination of language you can imagine, including (but certainly not limited to) bowel, squirt, hump, phlegm, weft, chowder, nub, glob, goiter, wad, chunky, polyp, bulbous, turgid, and mung bean.

(No, no, it's fine, I'll wait here while you go puke over there in that trash can.)

Asking people their favorite word has long been a decidedly dorky pastime of mine, along with keeping a mental catalog of everyone's answers. My sister Susie, for instance, likes "alfalfa,' while my pal Nathan is fond of "archipelago." One of my brothers likes "ransack" and the other is keen on "canal," while my second favorite English teacher in high school was firmly a fan of "serendipity."

As for my favorite word---well, it changes every week. My favorite phrase, though, that's easy: it's "armored car." I couldn't tell you why I love it, except to say that it sounds so beautiful when spoken aloud. Kind of like "cellar door," I guess, but somehow even better. 

In her 1946 poem "Sleeping Standing Up," Elizabeth Bishop wrote of "the armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing"  and I think of that line often, those armored cars of dreams that simultaneously keep us safe and hold us back. On my walk to work in the mornings, skirting San Francisco's Financial District,  I'll sometimes see a stocky bullet-proof van sitting outside a bank, and I'll whisper "armored car" out loud, just softly, just under my breath like that. And even though I know it's stupid, the very fact that I've had a chance to say it---my favorite phrase in the English language, the extraordinary combination of two ordinary words---will always mean it's shaping up to be a pretty okay day.

Sep 04, 2008

Holly - I love this! Here are mine

Favourite word - gobsmacked

Favourite phrase - when my husband rolls over just be fore he falls asleep and whispers I love you

2nd Favourite phrase - from the movie Love Actually and it is used as our code word - 'just in cases'.

Least favourite word - underpants - sounds so utilitarian

Least favourite phrase - Hello officer

Sep 05, 2008

Hm... my favorites change but I always like the Spanish word caliente. I also like fractious and moxie and my friend's made-up/distorted word discomboobulated. I also love the word Visigoth. So cool.

Favorite phrase now is "stuff and nonsense."

There are a lot of words I don't like but smegma has to top the list. I also can't stand the names Maggie (because it sounds like maggot) and Robert or Bert (burp). Oh, so those are two more words I don't like!

And I have to agree with some other commenters that everything sounds better to me if it's said with an English accent.