James Joyce thought cuspidor the most beautiful word in the English language. Arnold Bennett chose pavement. J.R.R. Tolkien felt the phrase cellar door had an especially beautiful sound.

These may seem odd choices, because it’s hard to separate sound from sense. “The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word,” wrote Max Beerbohm, “is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes.”

Beerbohm once pressed this point with his friend Robert Hichens (related in David Cecil’s 1964 biography Max):

One day [Beerbohm] said to Hichens, ‘Do you think, Crotchet, that a word can be beautiful, just one word?’

‘Yes,’ Hichens said, ‘I can think of several words that seem to me beautiful.’


A pause.

‘Then tell me, do you think the word ermine is a beautiful word?’

‘Yes,’ Hichens said, ‘I like the sound of it very much.’


Another pause.

‘And do you think vermin is a beautiful word?’