What is the most beautiful word in English?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 26, 2003

It all began when I paid a visit to Marie Sigurdson and Marla Blackwell's artist supply shop in Cochrane and failed to see the writing on the wall.

"Where's the beautiful calligraphy?" I asked, pointing toward the top of the wall behind the counter. (I was referring to the decorative strip of phrases that had greeted me whenever I came through the door – mottos such as: "Open your heart to Art," "The passion of expression," and "The gift of creativity.")

Marie said they hadn't had a chance to replace the words since repainting the place recently.

On a whim, I asked Marie what she thought was the most beautiful word in the English language.

"Love," she replied without hesitation.

Hmmm... That got me thinking that the rest of you just might have an opinion about beautiful words, too. I decided to find out, and this column is the first part of my report back to you.

Now, there are many lists of beautiful words in books and on the Internet. But the words collected here are uniquely yours. They come from a delightful cross-section of coffee companions who grace our "table" week by week. Using whatever selection criteria you like, you have been sharing your choice of words with me in person and by phone and e-mail in response to this simple question:

"What, for you, is the most beautiful word in the English language?"

I commenced my quest at the post office.

The first couple I encountered were Jack and Joni Gotta. Knowing Joni's passion for things equestrian, I wasn't surprised when she told me her most beautiful word: "Horse, of course!" Nor was I surprised at Jack's answer, either: "Italiano!" (I know; "Italiano" isn't an English word, but who's going to quibble with a retired head coach of the Calgary Stampeders who's very proud of his ethnic heritage?)

Speaking of Italian, Fraser Pakes, formerly of Morley and now living in Victoria, wrote: "As an English first-language speaker I have to say that, for me, the Italian language has to be the most beautiful from the sound point of view." Because of his love for speech sounds, Fraser chose the English word "lullaby." But "it is more than just a beautiful-sounding word," he wrote; "its meaning is beautiful in its effectiveness if repeated over and over again in a soft voice – puts one to sleep!"

Lindsie Haxton, of Cochrane, chose "madrigal." She first remembers it from "A Ballad of Beautiful Words," a poem she learned from her mother, who learned it as a child:

Amethyst, aerie, drifting, dell,
Oriole, lark, alone;
Columbine, kestrel, temple, bell,
Madrigal, calm, condone;
Saraband, arrow, huntsman's horn,
Orison, organ, bairn;
Meadow, Madonna, moorland, mourn;
Colony, carol, cairn.

From Saskatoon, Don Cochrane answered with just one word: "skylark."

"Huh? Skylark?" I wrote back. "Okay, I'll bite. Why skylark?"

"It sings while hovering in flight; soars; free," Don replied; it's the subject of Shelley's poem containing these beautiful words:

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then,
As I am listening now.

Grade 6 homeschooler Mary Arnatt, of Cochrane, quite amused me with her contribution. "Legolas," she wrote.

"Mary," I wrote back, "what's with 'legolas'? It's not even in my dictionary!"

To which I received the following reply:

"If you were a fan of The Lord of the Rings" – and I am, really – "you would have a good idea that Legolas is a handsome, elfish character, who is loved by all 10-year-olds, male and female!" (Heartthrob screen actor Orlando Bloom, take a bow!)

Well, coffee companions, keep your responses coming. This topic will continue next week, when I reveal your collective choice for THE most beautiful word in the English language. Let's see where this fascinating journey takes us.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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