Notes about words

March 1, 2010 permalink

C’est l’heure d’or

Designers love noodling about perfecting the design of chairs. Linguists seem to love discussing why “cellar door” is cited as the most beautiful phrase in English. From Language Log’s The Romantic Side of Familiar Words:

And in fact the specific meaning of cellar door isn’t quite as irrelevant as people imagine. The undeniable charm of the story — the source of the delight and enchantment that C. S. Lewis reported when he saw  cellar door rendered as Selladore –– lies the sudden falling away of the repressions imposed by orthography (which is to say, civilization) to reveal what Dickens called “the romantic side of familiar things." It’s the benign cousin of the disquietude we may feel when familiar things are suddenly charged with strange and troubling feelings, which Freud analyzed in his essay on the Unheimlich or uncanny. As Freud observed, heimlich can mean either “homey, familiar,” or “"concealed, withheld, kept from sight.” He goes on: “‘Unheimlich’ is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of’ heimlich’, and not of the second. …” But he notes that the second meaning is always present as well: “everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” Something is unheimlich, he says, because it “fulfils the condition of touching those residues of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.“

The unheimlich object, that is, is a kind of portal to the romance and passion that lie just beneath the surface of the everyday. In the world of fantasy, that role is suggested literally in the form of a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a brick wall at platform 9¾. Cellar door is the same kind of thing, the expression people keep falling on to illustrate how civilization and literacy put the primitive sensory experience of language at a remove from conscious experience – "under a spell, so the wrong ones can’t find it” — until it’s suddenly thrown open. It would be hard make that point using rag mop.