Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner on Beautiful Words

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about beautiful words and answers questions about English language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is now out in paperback, along with Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.

Are there words you think are beautiful? Do you admire them for the way they sound or what they mean? Leave a comment or call us at 212-433-9692 to let us know!


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [123]

Taoiseach from Decatur, Ga

Nothing added since January 18' 2012 ? I am late to the party but always got the message from "antediluvian"

Mar. 08 2013 11:04 PM
Albert W.J Kramer from New Jersey

It's geting to be quite a while since I heard your conversation about beautiful sounding words, but this may still amuse you if you haven't heard it.
Max Beerbohm and a friend were having exactly that discussion when Max asked, "Don't you think 'ermine' is a beautiful sounding word?" "Certainly," said his friend. So Max said, "Well, then, what about 'vermin?'
Al Kramer

Feb. 23 2012 10:58 PM
David H

Chlamydia is quite beautiful when you don't know what it means. It sounds like a girl's name.

Jan. 24 2012 02:53 PM

propitious-not a euphonous choice,per se,but, it reminds me of monday night football,howard cosell,dandy don meredith,and perhaps somewhat easier times.

Jan. 22 2012 01:39 PM
SKV from NYC

When James Lipton asked Meryl Streep, she replied "coconut milk".

Jan. 20 2012 02:41 PM
Louisa from Manhattan


Jan. 19 2012 01:50 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Actually, I think "melodious" itself sounds beautiful. It lives up to its own meaning! And "seersucker," apart from the sounds of the word itself, sounds like a sucker who consults a seer. I kind of like the sound of the word "laundry," myself.

As for place names, Ernst Toch wrote a whole "Geographical Fugue," starting with "Trinidad! And the big Mississippi and the town Honolulu and the lake Titicaca." The whole English text is available at

Jan. 19 2012 01:47 AM
Missy from Austin

Spanish is considered by many to lie between Italian and Portuguese in both complexity and in evolutionary distance from Latin; so it seemed a glaring oversight not to even mention it. The only reason I could think of is the lower class associations in this country.
I myself am biased, though; I personally find immense beauty in the rationality of Spanish pronunciation rules, as contrasted with my native English. It's the only other language I speak, so I can't compare it with the others. But not even thinking of it at all just seemed weird--especially since it's the second most prominent language in our own country.

Jan. 18 2012 10:12 PM

@tom from li- i disagree with missy,but, now you, are taking in to a very foolish place in the other direction. why, do YOU, bring in racism? cultural differences don't just equate to race. intersting,that you would infer that,as a given. that's just intellectual flatlining,sir.

Jan. 18 2012 06:20 PM
tom LI

To Missy? Really, you're gonna go down the racism path?

Jan. 18 2012 06:01 PM

@ missy from austin- i speak spanish as a second language. spanish is quite ubiquitous,in many parts of the u.s., so it just may not be as interesting to people. and btw,at the end of the day,no one is obligated to like spanish, just because they like portuguese,and italian. so, even if it is an unconcious bias,who are we or anyone else, to police anothers subconcious.

Jan. 18 2012 05:59 PM
Missy from Austin

Wait a minute: You agree Italian and Portuguese are beautiful but you don't mention Spanish? I can't help but conclude there's a subconscious class bias in that view.

Jan. 18 2012 05:17 PM
Maurice from Westchester

I heard Leonard comment on Marie Antoinette's famous misquote in this segment: Let them eat cake. It is more like let them eat brioche which is really not the same as cake. Here's the french: "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche"

Apparently, historians are not sure that she said this all.

I thought this is point that Patricia T. O'Connor would appreciate.


Jan. 18 2012 02:16 PM
Patricia from South Brunswick, NJ

It's more fun than beautiful but I love the word "rockery". It sounds like what it is.

Jan. 18 2012 02:14 PM
gene from NYC

O'Conner liked "shampoo," which has an Indian derivation. Other nice Sanskrit-derived words are:









Jan. 18 2012 02:14 PM
Stephen from Manhattan

I just heard you mention the word "spatula." It reminded me of my freshman high school English teacher back in Dayton, Ohio. As a means of getting us to expand our vocabularies, he would occasionally play a game of Stump the Teacher. We would pick out words from the dictionary and he would provide the definition. I came across "spatula" in the dictionary which looked completely foreign to me; I must never have seen the word in print before. I pronounced it as "spah-TOO-lah" with the accent on the second syllable. I didn't realize that the word my mom -- who grew up in Queens Village -- pronounced as "spatuler" was actually "spatula." Mom didn't really have much of a Queens accent, but it certainly surfaced on that word. I shouldn't have been surprised. My grandparents, her parents, who died when I was only five, used to say "er-ster" for "oyster" and were forever asking me and my siblings if we had to go to the "ter-let." I always thought they were saying "turtle."

Jan. 18 2012 02:10 PM

I love "diaphanous" for the way it sounds and for its meaning. The first time I saw this beautiful, pale pink iris with such delicate petals in my neighbor's yard, the first word that jumped into my mind was diaphanous. It is a lovely, lovely shade of pink. Other things that brought this word to mind was a sheer fabric I saw once on a dress and the dappled shade under a amelanchier tree.

Jan. 18 2012 02:07 PM
Simon from Manhattan

Whenever I listen to this segment with people just naming words they like it reminds me of college and sitting around getting high and the utterly useless conversations which would result.

Jan. 18 2012 01:59 PM


Jan. 18 2012 01:58 PM
M.E. from Manhattan

Here's a funny one: Zenzizenzizenzic. An obsolete form of mathematical notation representing the eighth power of a number

Jan. 18 2012 01:57 PM
Wendy from Paramus,J

Pang it's so descriptive

Jan. 18 2012 01:57 PM
Allen Bank from Brooklyn

Crystal / Crystalline

Jan. 18 2012 01:57 PM

Please give proper pronunciation of “jejune”. It’s not from the French.

Jan. 18 2012 01:57 PM

PREUSE - a nice word to say, but perhaps the most misused word in the English language!

Jan. 18 2012 01:57 PM
Eric from Pt. Pleasant, NJ


Jan. 18 2012 01:57 PM
Charles Maraia from West Village

Often: I do pronounce the T
And when used as Oftentimes, isn't the T pronounced?

Jan. 18 2012 01:57 PM
Susan from Westfield, NJ


Jan. 18 2012 01:56 PM
anne from Long Island

To Aaron of Wall Street/Carroll Gardens: with all due respect, and without sounding like a snoot, the melody of the "Alphabet Song" was written by Mozart, no? I think it's just been overdone.

Jan. 18 2012 01:56 PM
bob from Brooklyn


Jan. 18 2012 01:56 PM

Annie Dillard in her first book, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, says that "Sycamore" is the most beautiful word in the language

Jan. 18 2012 01:56 PM
sandy from Brooklyn

I think cessation is one of the most beautiful words.

Jan. 18 2012 01:56 PM
b from BK


Jan. 18 2012 01:56 PM
Bill from New Rochelle

Ms. O'Connor just dropped one from her lips (and Lips is a sweet word) and that is "ABUTTING CONSONANTS."

It feels nice in the mouth, and also makes me think of words dancing in a sexy way.

Jan. 18 2012 01:56 PM
David from Long Island CIty

How about words that LOOK beautiful. I like ones that contain an X, like aviatrix.

Jan. 18 2012 01:55 PM
Richard Storm from Hell's Kitchen

Beautiful word: aubade, the song of lovers parting at dawn. The most famous one is in Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers dispute whether the are hearing the nightengale or the lark. Love the sound, love the meaning, most of all, love that the language has a word for this.

Jan. 18 2012 01:55 PM
art525 from Park Slope

I met a young Polish woman who was just in love with the English language. She had studied it for a few years and spoke it well but I think it still had a newness and freshness and she just beamed when she spoke it. One day apropo of nothing she looked at me and said "you know what my favorite word is in English? Inconspicuous." And she said it in a melodic way. It is a good one.
Another aside on her exploration of English. She said she was walking down the street and tow men were having a fight. She said "He was beating him down". I said actually the expression is "He was beating him up". Her response- "That's stupid". Then I explained it takes a lot more time to beat somebody down. Her response-"What a language".

Jan. 18 2012 01:54 PM
b from BK


Jan. 18 2012 01:54 PM
florentina from queens, NY

"APRIORIC" and "EFFERVESCENSE" - because they sound mouthful,
aprioric - being before any knowledge - it just appeals to me as the beggining of the universe - and it sounds like a butterfly batting its wings

effervescence - I can just hear the bubbling of whatever liquid going on (I used to listen to effervescense sounds of selter in a glass when I was a little girl, and it always threw me into another microscopic world of dreams and discovery)

Jan. 18 2012 01:53 PM
Marian from Tarrytown

My favorite word is marsupial. But ubiquitous is good too. (Spelling doesn't count does it?)

Jan. 18 2012 01:52 PM
Nancy Anderson

I love the words windowsill and pudding.

Jan. 18 2012 01:52 PM
The Truth from Becky


Jan. 18 2012 01:52 PM

Favorite word to say—specificity. So many awesome, angular syllables.

Jan. 18 2012 01:52 PM
victoria from Brooklyn

I have to respectfully disagree with Ms. O'Connor. Although palimpsest doesn't necessarily sound beautiful, it is visually stunning. I guess, to be clear, what she is looking for are words that are aurally beautiful.

My favorite - that both looks and sounds wonderful -- is maudlin.

Jan. 18 2012 01:51 PM
Leticia from queens

mike huckabee - a four-year-old said he was going to vote for him last election

Jan. 18 2012 01:51 PM

Equation = problem
How does it fit into the problem?

Jan. 18 2012 01:50 PM
Monique From Brooklyn

My favorite German word which I find beautiful is "Lebensmittelgeschäft" which means or used to mean,when I studied German many moons ago, grocery store.

Jan. 18 2012 01:50 PM
mm merzon

the word, ICHOR.. pronounced IKORE....derived from the Greek, meaning
the "stuff" that flows through the veins of the poetic

Jan. 18 2012 01:50 PM
chrissie from nj from NJ


Jan. 18 2012 01:50 PM
tiarella from englewood

When I was a girl I named my doll Paprika because I liked the sound of the word.

Jan. 18 2012 01:50 PM
Ron Kluck from 66 St NYC


Jan. 18 2012 01:50 PM
Alexandra from ASTORIA

Actually, my daughter just informed me that BEVERLY CLEARY'S character, Ramona, in Ramona & Beezus, liked the word CHEVROLET and named her doll that because she loved the sound of it so much (to the chagrin of her older sister Beezus.)

Jan. 18 2012 01:49 PM
janet from manhattan

My father-in-law loved the words "random flooring" and thought it was a great name for a grandchild

Jan. 18 2012 01:49 PM
art525 from Park Slope


Jan. 18 2012 01:49 PM
Annabel from Brooklyn

I much prefer the British word Courgette as opposed to our ugly Zucchini.

Jan. 18 2012 01:49 PM
Peter from NYC

Hi once again...
I should have clarified a bit my previous choice of words in my last comment -- ethics and morals... I think these two words exemplify the possibility of beauty as derived from the MEANING of the word, as opposed to the sound or other qualities which offer appeal upon hearing. I think these two words have a deep resonance with people, touching on something that evokes a beautiful life or a beautiful outlook, and generating varied emotional and intellectual effects. And so I'm curious -- what do these two words evoke for you?
Thanks again.

Jan. 18 2012 01:49 PM


Jan. 18 2012 01:48 PM

A few I love...




Jan. 18 2012 01:48 PM
Sam from Morningside Heights

I have always loved the word "euphoria," both for its sound and its meaning. In fact, I almost gave my daughter (Maude -- another word I love for its sound and meaning) Euphoria as a middle name. I also love the word "celadon."

Jan. 18 2012 01:48 PM
Shannon from New Jersey

Curious why Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious has not come up yet. :-)

Jan. 18 2012 01:48 PM


I was hoping your guest could shed some light on an issue that I've heard many New Yorkers encounter when engaging with people that were raised elsewhere. When speaking about a queue or line, I've noticed most New Yorkers say they stand "on line" and others generally say they stand "in line." This issue has definitely become more contentious since the advent of the internet. In fact, Leonard, I've heard that you say "on line" like most people I was raised around. Patricia, can you offer us any insight on this?

Jan. 18 2012 01:48 PM
genevieve from Chatham, NJ


Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Dimitri from piermont ny


Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Peg Deher from savannah ga

Verdant - the sound and the immediate picture that comes to mind. What a wonderful laugh Patricia has!

Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Hank from Gowanus Brooklyn

arroyo !

Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Arlene Glotzer from Forest Hills

My son's middle school English teacher has taught him not to use more than one coordinating conjunction in a sentence. I find that it is common usage to say "and, yet..." or "but, yet...". Is the latter incorrect or simply redundant?

Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM

Quixotic! I love that the meaning aligns with the ambition of using a 'q' and and 'x' in the same word.

Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Len from Westchester

the name 'Miranda'[

Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
douglas smith from red hook


Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Dan K from Here



Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Jen from Brooklyn

Love you show! Long time listener, first time emailer...

My favorite word is CHUNKY. I think this dates back from working at
Starbucks where we stocked Chunky Pretzels, which were hard pretzel
covered in chocolate and dipped in delicious things.

Pet peeve: Even some editors these days let "myriad of" slip.

Jan. 18 2012 01:47 PM
wendy from nyc

pronounced "whist-eer-ia" (sounds very different to me)

Jan. 18 2012 01:46 PM

Cellar Door is also from the film Donnie Darko. Drew Barrymore said it was the most beautiful word in the English language.

Jan. 18 2012 01:46 PM
mw from nyc


Jan. 18 2012 01:46 PM

Favorite Word: chambray

Jan. 18 2012 01:46 PM

Portuguese Brazilian strong ( shsh ) in accent is the Rio De Janeiro affectation.

Jan. 18 2012 01:46 PM

my favorite word:


Jan. 18 2012 01:46 PM


Jan. 18 2012 01:46 PM
DeAnn from Bethlehem PA

paradigm !

Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM

Veronese Italians attending the University of Bologna insisted that "simpatico" meant more than agreeable. It indicated that there was a real understanding or being on the same wave length. In fact the expression was not truly translatable into English

Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM
Renate Bieber from Westfield, NJ

Re Chevrolet - Ramona Quimby, in the books by Beverly Cleary, loves the sound of the word so much that she calls her doll Chevrolet, and of course gets laughed at by her older sister Beezus

Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM

Following up in the beauty of "sympatico", might it be that often what we find beautiful has its roots in latin and romance languages? Even visually, Italian looks beautiful. The alphabet was born out of the sounds. Languages that adopted the roman alphabet often look like all angles and sharp edges--"alpha-crashes".

Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM
Eddie from Brooklyn


Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM


Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM
Michele LaRue

"Exquisite" ... IS.

Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM
The Truth from Becky


Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM

Chifforobe. Spoken with a Southern accent, always.

Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM
Tony from UWS

I love the german word for church: kirche

Jan. 18 2012 01:45 PM
Stephen Handzo

Somebody once said that the two most beautiful words in English are "cellar door."

Jan. 18 2012 01:44 PM
John from NYC

Always liked Poe's "tintinabulation" A perfect word.

Jan. 18 2012 01:43 PM
Steve from Bklyn

A question: Could you ask Patricia for her perspective on pronunciation? I love her and her work but her, uh, accent definitely puts a twist on her readings of some beautiful words.
A word whose sound seems absolutely musical to me is "Flatulent," and when delicately pronounced, really comes across as delicate and light and lovely. As a word, I mean. I can see a more definition-appropriate pronunciation might be "Ffflatchyuhlint!" with perhaps a Damon Runyon-character earthiness.
Comment from the esteemed Ms O'Connor?

Jan. 18 2012 01:43 PM
Mark from Westchester

I'm going down the automotive route......Skylark flows nicely from the tongue and down the highway. And powerglide, which was an early name for a GM automatic transmission. I think....

Jan. 18 2012 01:43 PM

At a convocation of Patent Lawyers at the Waldorf, known for its hospitality suites, the featured speaker said the most beautiful words were: "Open bar".

Jan. 18 2012 01:43 PM
Dorothy from Manhattan

I remember hearing, as a kid (which was many years ago), that the most "beautiful" word in the English language, based only on sound, was/is "cellophane."

Jan. 18 2012 01:43 PM
Jessica from Brooklyn

I also love serendipity.

Jan. 18 2012 01:43 PM
Mike from Brooklyn

Two words: "whisper" and "whippoorwill"

Jan. 18 2012 01:42 PM
Jessie from Greenpoint

"Umami" is a Japanese word that, according to the wine-tasting book I am reading, has entered our lexicon to mean the fifth taste (aside from salty, sweet, bitter and sour). They say it translates to "good-flavored," "good-tasting" or "savory," but doesn't it just sound like "yummy"?!

Jan. 18 2012 01:42 PM

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.

Jan. 18 2012 01:42 PM
Susan from Manhattan


Jan. 18 2012 01:42 PM
Bee from Weehawken, NJ

juxtapose - in both meaning and sound

Jan. 18 2012 01:42 PM
gene from NYC




Jan. 18 2012 01:42 PM
Erica P from NJ (in exilium)

How about "calliphonic" for a beautiful-sounding word?

Jan. 18 2012 01:41 PM
Michelle from Manhattan

Ironically, I have always liked the word "negative." This word peters back and forth between the front and back of the mouth, making it enjoyable to say. It's especially fun if you extend out the initial "n" before releasing the rest of the word. "nnnnnnnnegative" :)

Jan. 18 2012 01:41 PM

I love FLORA and FAUNA

Jan. 18 2012 01:41 PM
Mary from Jersey City

I have always loved the word "halcyon."

Jan. 18 2012 01:41 PM
Jenny from NYC

The German for waxwing is seidenschwanz. (I know this because my great-great grandmother was a Seidenschwanz from Saxony. It translates directly as "silk tail." Which makes me wonder about my great-great grandmother...)

Jan. 18 2012 01:40 PM
wendy from nyc

Wisteria - one of my favorite words

Jan. 18 2012 01:40 PM
H. from Queens

I love the word "auberge," though I don't have much occasion to use it.

Jan. 18 2012 01:40 PM
mark in manhattan

A favorite word of mine is serendipity.

Jan. 18 2012 01:40 PM
Erica P from NJ (in exilium)


She's wrong right off the bat this time, with prepared material, no less. Her definition of "palimpsest" is a highly specific and restrictive sense.

It doesn't mean writing transverse to original writing. The primary sense is "writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased." It's used metaphorically in the sense of successive layers in culture or architecture.

Jan. 18 2012 01:39 PM
Liza from Brooklyn

My favorite has always been somnolence.

Jan. 18 2012 01:39 PM
Ryan from Brkln

Plantagenet -- not sure exactly how it sounds in the french though...

Jan. 18 2012 01:39 PM
Stephen from Brooklyn

I love the word "lustration," not in the government sense as it is often used, but in the sense of cleansing by ritual purification, as is often done in religious ceremonies, such as in the Jain and Hindu religions.

Jan. 18 2012 01:39 PM

don't you find placenta a strangely beautiful word?

Jan. 18 2012 01:39 PM


Haven't you mistaken “palimpsest” for “boustrophedon”?


Jan. 18 2012 01:38 PM
Mark from Mount Vernon

Leonard, why is Pat's time being cut? She was always heard at 1:20. Today her feature began at l:32. Last month's was also cut short.

Jan. 18 2012 01:38 PM
Aaron from Wall Street / Carroll Gardens

For some reason the section of the alphabet "LMNOP" came immediately to mind. Of course this is the most fun string of letters to say when reciting the alphabet (ignoring the saccherine melody of the alphabet song). In any case, I'll add "onomatopoeia" to the list, since it resonates with my childish appreciation for LMNOP.

Jan. 18 2012 01:38 PM
anne from Long Island, NY

How about dulcet or dulcimer? Especially dulcimer.

Jan. 18 2012 01:37 PM
Caroline Schimmel from Greenwich, CT

Any word which can be easily sung/crooned, including "beautiful"--which is why operas are easiest on the ears in Italian, and worst in German and English

Jan. 18 2012 01:37 PM
Ash in Chelsea

Re beatiful words: When I was in the US Navy in 1959, there was a young man in boot camp with me who told me that his father, a linguist, told him that the two words 'cellar door' were the most euphonious sound to the human ear. Have you ever heard this? Personally, I likethe word 'sepulveda'.

Your fan, Ashton Spann

Jan. 18 2012 01:37 PM
Laura from Greenlawn

I have always loved the word "Waxwing." The sound of the soft vowel with the x in the first heavy syllable followed by the light "wing" in the second is beautiful to say and to hear, perfect for a songbird.
I also have a question about word usage. When should I use ensure, and when should I use assure? For example, which of the following phrases is correct? "To ensure the safety of all runners..." or "To assure the safety of all runners..." Thank you.

Jan. 18 2012 01:34 PM
Peter from NYC

Hi Patricia
Recently, I have been wondering about "ethics" and "morals", and how many people seem to use these terms interchangeably, when they would clearly have come about to serve different contexts. I am wondering what distinction you would make between the two.
Thanks much!

Jan. 18 2012 01:19 PM
Missy from Austin


Jan. 18 2012 12:57 PM
David from Manhattan

From the liner notes of one of my favorite albums, Good Humor by Saint Etienne:

"I remember once reading that the most beautiful words in the English language are chime, lullaby and melody, and this sounds true to me - both for the sound of the words, and the images they conjure."
~Douglas Coupland 1998

Jan. 18 2012 12:09 PM

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