In phonaesthetics, the English compound noun cellar door has been cited variously as an example of a word or phrase which is beautiful purely in terms of its sound, without regard for semantics (i.e., meaning). It has been variously presented either as merely one beautiful instance of many, or as the most beautiful in the English language; as the author's personal choice, that of an eminent scholar's, or of a foreigner who does not speak the language. The original instance of this observation has not been discovered, although it was made as early as 1903.
The semantics of "cellar door" derive straightforwardly from its component terms: in the United States, a cellar door is often a door or pair of shutter doors between the outside of a building and its cellar. In Britain, Ireland and Canada, a cellar door is often located within a house and opens onto a flight of stairs leading to the cellar. Outside doors are more common to pubs and restaurants.
From the nineteenth century, many American houses on large plots had slanted trapdoors abutting the side and opening onto a flight of steps leading down into the cellar. By the mid-twentieth century this rustic feature was a rarity; in 1953, William Chapman White wrote in the New York Herald Tribune:
The modern small home or apartment has ... deprived today's child of ... the pleasant summer afternoon activity of sliding down cellar doors. Just what happened to the slanted cellar door in this efficient age isn't clear; although cellars have remained, nothing has disappeared more quietly from modern life than these cellar doors.
Geoff Nunberg suggests the use of such a semantically banal term to illustrate the idea of beauty appeals to aesthetes as "an occasion to display a capacity to discern beauty in the names of prosaic things".
Nunberg suggests the phonetic characteristics of "cellar door" are relevant, not for purely auditory reasons, but by phonological association with languages imbued with romantic preconceptions:
it at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals, and open syllables with cardinal vowel nuclei — the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkien turned into a staple of fantasy fiction.
Nunberg further suggests the semantics of "cellar door" are not actually irrelevant; in fantasy, a mundane door can become a portal to another world, as with the wardrobe of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland. This idea is utilized in the 2001 film Donnie Darko, where the phrase "cellar door" is discussed in one scene, and an actual cellar door figures into the plot in a later scene.
In 2010, Grant Barrett discussed the "cellar door" combination of words in the "On Language" column of the New York Times. The earliest example he cites is from Gee-Boy, a 1903 novel by Cyrus Lauron Hooper, where it is attributed to "an Italian savant". William Dean Howells in the March 1905 issue of Harper's Magazine attributes to a "courtly Spaniard" the quote, "Your language too has soft and beautiful words, but they are not always appreciated. What could be more musical than your word cellar-door?" Barrett surmises the idea was already current when Hooper was writing. In 2014, Geoff Nunberg speculated that the choice of "cellar door" might have arisen from Philip Wingate and Henry W. Petrie's 1894 hit song "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard", which contains the lyric, "You'll be sorry when you see me sliding down our cellar door", after which "'slide down my cellar door' became a kind of catchphrase to suggest innocent friendship".[nb 1]
A story told by syndicated columnists Frank Colby in 1949 and L. M. Boyd in 1979 holds that "cellar door" was Edgar Allan Poe's favorite phrase, and that the refrain Nevermore in "The Raven" was chosen as "the closest word to 'cellar door' he could think of." This may derive from a 1914 essay by Alma Blount:
Poe, who studied sound effects carefully, says that he chose "Nevermore" as the refrain for The Raven largely because the word contains the most sonorous vowel, o, and the most "producible" consonant, r. An amusing story is told of an Italian lady who knew not a word of English, but who, when she heard the word cellar-door, was convinced that English must be a most musical language. If the word were not in our minds hopelessly attached to a humble significance, we, too, might be charmed by its combination of spirant, liquids, and vowels.
That eastern professor who said, one time that cellar-door was the most beautiful word in English was speaking oracularly. ... if cellar-door is not the most beautiful word it is probably, now that THE GREAT DROUTH [sic] is upon us, the most popular.
The rhythmic or musical quality of the phrase was referenced by H. L. Mencken in 1920, by professor David Allen Robertson in 1921, and by critic George Jean Nathan in 1935. In 1932, poet Wilfred J. Funk publicized Funk & Wagnalls dictionary with a top ten list of beautiful words, which did not include "cellar door". Writers were polled afterwards for their own candidates, and three included "cellar door": Hendrik Willem van Loon, Dorothy Parker, and Albert Payson Terhune. The Baltimore Sun responded:
Three poets who were questioned as to their preferences agreed that the measure of a word and its associations are far more important in judging its beauty than the mere sound ...Although Baltimore writers showed wide disagreement in their preferences, none could make out why [writers] in New York think "cellar-door" should be ranked at the top.
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.
However, Tolkien most likely was not the originator, seeing as he was merely 11 years old in 1903 when a strange novel called “Gee-Boy” — which also alludes to the aesthetic properties of cellar door — was published by the Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper. Hooper’s narrator writes that the protagonist says:
He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.
Of course, cellar doors have been around in other parts of the world long before in America, but this hints that the idea and recognition of the beauty of the phrase was American to begin with.
In 1966, Tolkien referred to "cellar door" in an interview, using it as an example of the way in which words will shape his stories: "Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me, 'cellar door', say," he said. "From that, I might think of a name 'Selador', and from that a character, a situation begins to grow."
The teenage protagonist of Norman Mailer's 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam? attributes the observation to "a committee of Language Hump-type professors ... back in 1936 ". Richard Lederer in Crazy English claims that H. L. Mencken had claimed in a 1940s poll that "cellar door" had been favored by a student from China.
In 1991, Jacques Barzun wrote:
I discovered its illusory character when many years ago a Japanese friend with whom I often discussed literature told me that to him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was "cellardoor". It was not beautiful to me and I wondered where its evocative power lay for the Japanese. Was it because they find l and r difficult to pronounce, and the word thus acquires remoteness and enchantment? I asked, and learned also that Tatsuo Sakuma, my friend, had never seen an American cellar door, either inside a house or outside — the usual two flaps on a sloping ledge. No doubt that lack of visual familiarity added to the word’s appeal. He also enjoyed going to restaurants and hearing the waiter ask if he would like salad or roast vegetables, because again the phrase "salad or" could be heard. I concluded that its charmlessness to speakers of English lay simply in its meaning. It has the l and r sounds and d and long o dear to the analysts of verse music, but it is prosaic. Compare it with "celandine", where the image of the flower at once makes the sound lovely.
The remark is attributed to "a famous linguist" in the dialogue script of Donnie Darko (2001). When asked about the origin of the phrase, writer-director Richard Kelly inaccurately suggested Edgar Allan Poe as the possible source.
Denis Norden, asked for his favorite word in 2008, said:
When I was at school a teacher told me the most beautiful word in the English language was "cellar door"—and I believed him, even though it's strictly two words, and I made it mine. Many years later, I discovered the word he meant was "celador". It's still my favorite.
The antiquarian book seller Cellar Door Books was founded in Indianola, Iowa in 1971. The company traces its name to the Poe attribution through English teacher Miles Sheffler in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1961. Having relocated to New Hampshire in 1975, the company has specialized for many years in the art and books of the 20th-century watercolorist Tasha Tudor (1915–2008). A significant collection of Tasha Tudor's books and other documentation formed by Cellar Door Books was placed with the De Grummond Collecton, the University of Southern Mississippi in 2011.
Respellings of "cellar door" have been made to preserve its purported phonoaesthetics while obscuring the semantics. Some respellings presume a non-rhotic accent and do not represent the R of "cellar". Some respellings may fail in accents lacking the horse–hoarse merger.
- Columnist Maxine Martz in 1988 wrote about one Margaret Masters, who heard about "cellar door" at Drake University, and later named her baby sister "Sellador". Sellador Crocket appeared on Groucho Marx's television program, You Bet Your Life, in 1961 and recounted the story, including the "Rat Trap" reference.
- The name of a "kind-hearted laundress" in Geyserland, a 1908 novel by Richard Hatfield. C. S. Lewis wrote in 1967 "I was astonished when someone first showed that by writing cellar door as Selladore one produces an enchanting proper name." Also a character in the underground comic Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.
- Barrett, Grant (14 February 2010). "On Language: Cellar Door". New York Times. p. 16, Sunday magazine. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
- Nunberg, Geoff (26 February 2010). "The Romantic Side of Familiar Words". Language Log. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
- White, William Chapman (20 April 1953). "The Lost Art of Bannister Sliding". The Milwaukee Journal. p. 52. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
- Kois, Dan (23 July 2003). "Everything you were afraid to ask about "Donnie Darko"". Slate.
- Howells, William Dean (March 1905). "Editor's easy chair". Harper's Magazine: 645.
- Nunberg, Geoff (16 March 2014). ""Slide down my cellar door"". Language Log. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
- Nunberg, Geoff (17 March 2014). "GN response to comment by "Emma"". Language Log. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
- Lovelace, Melba (15 July 1989). "Words to "Playmates" Song Stir Up Controversy". News OK. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
- Colby, Frank (3 November 1949). "Take My Word For It". Miami Daily News. p. 45. Retrieved 1 March 2010.
- Boyd, Louis M. (15 January 1979). "Quoth the raven "cellar door"?". Reading Eagle (Reading, Pennsylvania). p. 5. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
- Blount, Alma (January 1914). "III: Melody and Harmony". Intensive Studies in English Literature. New York: Macmillan. pp. 30–31.
- "The most beautiful word". The Pittsburgh Press. 22 July 1919. p. 6. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
- Fitzgerald, Francis Scott (2004). ""'Cellar-Door'? Ugh!" Quoth Baltimore Writers". In Matthew Joseph Bruccoli, Judith Baughman. Conversations with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Literary conversations series. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 106. ISBN 1-57806-605-0.
- Lederer, Richard (1998) . Crazy English (revised ed.). Pocket Books. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-671-02323-2.
- Jacques Barzun, An Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry (New Directions, 1991). ISBN 0-8112-1157-6
- Ross Smith, Inside Language, Walking Tree Publishers (2007), p. 65).
- "60 Second Interview: Denis Norden". Metro UK (London: Associated Newspapers). 6 October 2008. p. 10. Retrieved 28 February 2010.
- Martz, Maxine (11 March 1986). "A spit-and-polish event (in more ways than one)". The Deseret News (Salt Lake City). p. 14. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
- Lewis, C.S. (1985). Lyle W. Dorsett, Marjorie Lamp Mead, ed. Letters to children. Macmillan. p. 110. ISBN 0-02-570830-9.
- Discussion arising from Barrett's "cellar door" article on the American Dialect Society mailing list