Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Beautiful words

How do we define beauty when it comes to words (or anything else, but let's just stick to words, those slippery bastards)? Is a beautiful word something that denotes a beautiful concept, a word with a beautiful meaning? Or is the beauty in the ear of the listener – does a pleasing phonetic form, a pleasing sound, make a word beautiful? Is a beautiful word something with beautiful connotations and associations? Is it all of these?

British Council conducted a survey about the most beautiful words in the English language. Over 35,000 learners of English participated in the survey. The top ten list of words looks like this:
  1. Mother
  2. Passion
  3. Smile
  4. Love
  5. Eternity
  6. Fantastic
  7. Destiny
  8. Freedom
  9. Liberty
  10. Tranquillity
A similar a survey was conducted in Finland. There were 3837 votes, and the results were the following (I've added the translations):
  1. Äiti (mother)
  2. Rakkaus (love)
  3. Rakas (loved one, dear)
  4. Kiitos (thanks, thank you)
  5. Lumi (snow)
  6. Kaunis (beautiful)
  7. Kulta (while the primary meaning of this word is 'gold', it is often used as a term of endearment, the way 'honey' is used in English)
  8. Usva (mist)
  9. Aamu (morning)
  10. Koti (home)

The word that was considered the most beautiful in both languages is the word 'mother', or 'äiti' in Finnish. This seems to indicate that it is the meaning of the word rather than its phonetic characteristics (what it sounds like) that most people think makes a word beautiful.
As you can see, 'mother' and 'love' are the only two words these lists have in common, with 'love' second on the Finnish list and fourth on the English one. I am tempted to observe that on the English list, there are more abstract concepts, such as 'freedom', 'liberty', 'destiny' etc., while the Finnish list has more words referring to nature – 'snow', 'mist' – and everyday things – 'home', 'morning'. However, as these were two separate surveys, comparing their results may not be very useful.

Now, poets are obviously masters in thinking of the rights words. Five poets give their opinions on beautiful words here.

And my favourite?

Let me think...

No, it's impossible! Don't make me choose! There are too many beautiful words, and I'll remember the best ones only after I've posted this... or tomorrow, or next week, or years later. Yes, I need the rest of my life to think about this, to carefully choose the most beautiful words (actually, that is just the kind of thing I'd want to do)! But all right, off the top of my head...

Finnish: laulu (song), lintu (bird), laine (wave – as in water... or in one's hair), metsä (forest), kuulas (clear or transparent; it is a word often used to describe weather, light, sky), hiljaisuus (silence), vanamo (twinflower), venho (archaic form of 'vene', boat), virvatuli (will-o'-the-wisp), varpu (twig or brush, such as where bilberries grow)

And English: love, lively, ember, willow, aglow, autumnal, evenfall, spirit, ethereal, sylvan

Words are evocative. They bring to mind memories, they arouse feelings. How we feel about words is very subjective. Therefore, I would love to hear your opinion – what do you think is the most beautiful word? In any language!


  1. Not sure about "beautiful", but my favourite word has always (well, from the day I learned about it) been "defenestration". Another great word is "callipygian". ;)

  2. Great words indeed! :)

    Well, writing "the most beautiful words" list was difficult, because I was confused by words that were funny/cute/sexy/bizarre/interesting in various ways... so I guess one could write endless lists... :)