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Monday, February 15, 2010

Cellar door

A lovely On Language column in the New York Times Magazine about the unlikely genealogy of the phrase "cellar door" as a pure aural aesthetic pleasure: H.L. Mencken, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, among others have evoked it as a perfect term. Whereas, the other day my friends were mulling over how 'oiled boys' is another such example of perfection, but 'boiled boys,' 'oiled boils,' 'boiled oys,' don't have the same effect. For some reason.

Grant Barnett's article is funny and weird, and what I want to know most is, How does one do research for such a piece? The strangeness isn't so much in who named the unlikely phrase so perfect in the first place, but that it has circulated so widely, often with some claim to first discovery or a mysterious provenance, as in Donnie Darko.
Often, commentators claim cellar door is beautiful without reference to any other source or author. Did they rediscover it? Or did they simply not remember where they first heard it? The writer and famous wit Dorothy Parker didn’t think much of the collection of beautiful words compiled in 1932 by the dictionary-maker Wilfred J. Funk, who topped his list with words like dawn, hush and lullaby. Parker said she preferred check and enclosed — but also cellar door. A journalist named Hendrik Willem van Loon was one of two other people who suggested cellar door as an omission in Funk’s list. Van Loon expressed surprise that Parker selected the same term: “I’ve only met Miss Parker twice in my life, and we’ve never talked of cellar-doors.”
In a similar vein, the drama critic George Jean Nathan used cellar door to mock Gertrude Stein in 1935: “Sell a cellar, door a cellar, sell a cellar cellar-door, door adore, adore a door, selling cellar, door a cellar, cellar cellar-door. There is damned little meaning and less sense in such a sentence, but there is, unless my tonal balance is askew, twice more rhythm and twice more lovely sound in it than in anything, equally idiotic, that Miss Gertrude ever confected.”

(On that note, I am going to start using 'confected' or its other delightful verb forms every day.)

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