Wonderful words #3: Stunning phrases

J R R Tolkien once said (I forget where) that he thought the most beautiful word in the English language is cellar door. While I am not sure that I agree with him, I do agree that often the attractiveness of a word has little to do with what it means.

J R R Tolkien


This post is about phrases that grab your attention. Well, at least they have grabbed mine, and I am not at all sure why in most cases.

Consider, if you will, the lines from Macbeth:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

The italicised words, taken alone, don’t do much for me, but the phrase as a whole shivers me timbers. By the way, it seems to be due to Shakespeare that incarnadine is now associated with blood-red. Before that it meant “pale pink, flesh-coloured”.

Here are a few other examples:

and live alone in the bee-loud glade (from The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W B Yeats)

worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; (from Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Und harren vergebens,
Im Finstern gebunden,
Gerechten Gerichtes.
(And wait in vain/bound in darkness/for just judgement)
(from Gesang der Parzen in the play Iphigenie auf Tauris by Goethe)

Go down, Miss Moses, there’s nothin’ you can say
It’s just ol’ Luke, and Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgement Day.
“Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?”
He said, “Do me a favor, son, woncha stay an’ keep Anna Lee company?”
(from The Weight, a song by The Band on the album Music from Big Pink)

I could go on and on, but then this meandering musing might outlive its welcome. I will leave you with a thought from my German teacher at school, way back in the mists of time. He once said that he thought the only really valid literary criticism was “Oh, look at this. This is good!”

2 thoughts on “Wonderful words #3: Stunning phrases

  1. According to Wikipedia Tolkien commented on this compound in his 1955 essay “English and Welsh”. He wrote (I quote from wiki):

    “Most English-speaking people…will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.”

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