A cellar door to the soul

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In the cult movie Donnie Darko, Drew Barrymore’s character tells a class of English Literature pupils about a British writer who said "cellar door" was the most beautiful sounding combination of words in the English language.

In his essay "English and Welsh", he put forward the theory that words have a beauty that is often quite separate from their meaning. He wrote: "Most English-speaking people ... will admit that Cellar Door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense and from its spelling". The English language is full of ‘Cellar Doors’, words that are beautiful, strange, sensuous or simply fun to roll off the tongue.

As the final movie adaptation of Tolkien’s best-known work, The Lord of the Rings, is released, The Scotsman asks a selection of writers, poets, screenwriters and songwriters for their own "cellar doors".

AL Kennedy Author

I’m quite fond of "amphibian", "clavicle" and "pestilence". One of my favourite sentences would be "Pickled egg, anyone?" Although I do not like pickled eggs, it always sounds melodious. And for some reason all my scripts contain the phrase "What were you thinking?" I have no idea why.

Brian Morton Author, broadcaster and columnist

"Soprano saxophone." It’s feminine, sexy, with a great man’s name buried in it. It’s an instrument I’ve battled to master. The Alto is a doddle by comparison. Soprano Saxophone sounds as if she might be a Greco-Italian starlet in the adult movie line.

Janice Galloway Author

It’s tempting to rerun the old chestnut that the most beautiful words in the English language are "cheque in the post", but I won’t. I can single out one word that works for me every time in terms of evocation, effect and mood. It’s "liquefaction", which seems almost a phrase in itself. Never having been much of a scientist, I met the word first in the Robert Herrick poem Upon Julia’s Clothes; "When as in silks my Julia goes / Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes." And the word "liquefaction", its fluidity, the silkiness of it in the mouth, brings the whole verse into life again, in all its audacity and sexiness. The word "clothes", the big blot it makes on your tongue when you say it, is pretty damn good too. And, for less definable reasons, "koala bear". I think I should stop now.

Edith Bowman BBC Radio One presenter

"Stuff." I love the general chaos to this word. It can mean so many things and I generally overuse it. It sounds full and fluffy and in abundance. It’s a very simple word but quite friendly sounding. And "chocolate". Quite self-explanatory really. Warm, delicious, sensual and every girl loves chocolate. I like "Fandango", purely because of the legends that are Queen (The word appears in Bohemian Rhapsody). But as well as meaning a lively Spanish dance for two people, it also means foolish nonsense, which I think everyone should partake in. And I like "sensual". There is quite a sinisterness to this word when you say it. Just the repetition of S’s. It’s very sexy and provocative and a good word to exaggerate. Other general words I love just for their simplicity are "snow" and "cuddle".

Forbes Masson Writer and Director

This being panto season, (well that’s the only absurd reason I can think of) my favourite words at the moment are "dry boak", which means the wretching sound you make when you are sick but don’t follow through. Very onomatopoeic! I’ve actually used it in one of my songs in Cinderella this year at the Tron Theatre. The ugly sisters sing to Cinderella "she smells like a rotten egg yolk, she keeps giving us the dry boak".

Roddy Woomble Singer/songwriter with Idlewild

My favourite word combination is "Oatmeal Cookie". It’s so all encompassing, sweet, annoying, comforting, rustic and comical that every time someone says it, with purpose, I feel calm. I also like the word "Socks".

Richard Holloway Author

My favourite words are probably "the pictures". As a wee boy, going to the pictures was an enormous pleasure and, though I am now at the other end of life, the magic is still there. In the beginning the pictures took me out of the everyday world into a place of laughter and forgetting. They still have the ability to do that. I used to think that my love of the movies was purely escapist, and I am not ashamed to admit that they are still my preferred way of decompressing, but I can also see that they enriched my imagination. So, my love of the modern era’s most distinctive art form can even claim the intellectual high ground, if it can be bothered. Most of the time, however, I am just glad that going to the pictures has never lost its magic for me.

Eddi Reader Singer/songwriter

I love the word "Sparkle". It reminds me of going to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on a rainy Glasgow Saturday night as a three-year-old when I thought God had dropped a pot of multi-coloured sparkle on the evening streets. Glasgow sparkled for me that night.

Douglas Dunn Poet

I tend to think in lines of verse rather than individual words and phrases. I love "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang" from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or the last line of Philip Larkin’s The Trees, "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh", or from Seamus Heaney’s The Harvest Bow "A knowable corona / A throwaway love-knot of straw".

For individual words, my list would have to include "euphonious", "melismatic" and "melodious". Place names would have to include "Inchinnan", "Auchtermuchty", "Dairsie"; "Blebo, Largo, Dunino / Into Europe seem to go. / Strangely Scottish, we may deem / Auchtermuchty, Pittenweem."

John Burnside Poet

I’ve always had a fondness for "snow bunting", not so much for the bird, but for the sound of it. On the other hand, the words "sweet nothing" don’t sound particularly musical together, but the idea is beautiful and intriguing. Or do I mean the idea of accepting that idea, of surrendering something too substantial and guarded to the sweet curve of nothing?

My favourite word combination, though, has to be "splendid isolation". I’m all for communities, team games, family, lovers and crowds, in their rightful place, but the one luxury that stands out in a too-populous world is splendid, thoughtful, quiet, creative, connected isolation.

Christopher Brookmyre Author

I like "mellifluous" and "mellifluent", mainly because of the phonetic sound of the words. It’s hard to choose between the two. On a slightly more esoteric level, I like "attendant". It can be used as a noun or a verb. On one level it refers to a person who is quite lowly but, on another, it is one of the graces of the human condition, to be attendant on someone’s needs.

Katie Hickman Author

My favourite word is "weasel". It just appeals. It’s such a funny sounding word. My son likes the word "cheese-mongers". I don’t know why. I used to read Beatrix Potter’s book Two Bad Mice to him when he was younger and every time he heard the word he’d crack up for no apparent reason. My husband (AC Grayling - the Times columnist and philosopher) says that his favourite word is "reasonable", because of what it implies in the world.

Steve Mason Singer / Songwriter with The Beta Band

The first is "nomis". This is not a real word. It’s made up. I used to do a lot of writing where I would try to disconnect my rational brain from the pen and paper and just watch the words falling out of my head. Nomis is one of these. It’s another way of saying the word "name". My nomis is Steve! Pronounced "no miss". The word gives me a feeling which is sadly indescribable. It’s calm and non-threatening. One of my favourite word combinations is "floating down stream". The word "floating" suggests a pleasant loss of control, which is emphasised by "down stream". The current is taking you with it, where it wants to go. You have no say, power or responsibility. Sometimes that’s a beautiful thing.

Gary Jules Singer/songwriter who performed a version of Tears for Fears song Mad World on the Donnie Darko soundtrack

I can’t think of one off the top of my head but I can tell you that my Mom uses the phrase "read them the riot act" and that’s my favourite little saying now. You know what? I’ll tell you what one of my favourites is : "Taking a turn" or "took a turn", like you say "he took a turn for the worse". Using the roadmap analogy for life. Not like "it’s your turn", as in opportunity, but as in "taking a left turn".

Candia McWilliam Author

"Timor mortis conturbat me" (from William Dunbar’s poem Lament For The Makers) or "the fear of death upsets me". I’ve always thought of it, since I was a child. The words just come, bang, into my head. I like it for exactly what the words mean, the fear of death and the message to live life well.

Jamie Byng Publisher

I like "pickled by whispers". It was what happened to Phlebas the Phoenician in the Death by Water section of TS. Eliot’s The Wasteland.

Ali Smith Author

My favourite words are "Of course", for multiple reasons. It sounds incredibly positive, and also suggests a cycle, something taking it’s course. Also, it’s just a great way of saying "Yes".

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