100 Most Beautiful Words

This isn’t my list. But a friend passed it along and I thought it was interesting. It’s one person’s collection of the 100 Most Beautiful Words. I’d have to agree that many of these words roll over the tongue in a pleasing way. Desultory. Efflorescence. Lissome. I love words, but more than that, I love sentences. I believe that while a single word may be lovely or conversely hideous, may be firm or feeble, it’s the sentence that creates the aesthetic.

Many sentences stand out for me. Hundreds. But here are just two, perhaps from a couple of obvious sources.

He crossed the old trace again and he must turn the pony up onto the plain and homeward but the warriors would ride on in that darkness they’d become, rattling past with their stone-age tools of war in default of all substance and singing softly in blood and longing south across the plains to Mexico. — All the Pretty Horses, Cormack McCarthy

And this (okay, this is two sentences):

Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun. — The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

And of course, Cheever. In this piece, “Cheever’s Art of the Devastating Phrase,” from the New York Times, says, “The more you read Cheever, the more you feel his best work is often less about plot than about language—about poetry in the broadest sense.”

Leithauser writes:

Here are a few examples (italics my own) of his embedding into a sentence a word or phrase that any poet might envy: “a gentle and excursive mountain shower”; “I have cheerfully praised the evening sky hanging beyond the disheveled and expatriated palm trees on Doheny Boulevard”; “where one heard in the sounds of a summer rain the prehistoric promises of love, peacefulness, and beauty”; “her countenance was long, vacant, and weakly lighted”; “[The dog] was as black as coal, with a long, alert, intelligent, rakehell face…”

Yes, words may be wonderful or weak. But sentences carry the load.

Photo: Pilottage / Flickr Creative Commons

5 Comments on “100 Most Beautiful Words”

  1. When I saw the summary of your post on the ‘reader’, I immediately thought of Cormac McCarthy and All The Pretty Horses. What elegant, sparse writing! (You mention two of my favourite books, I note). I remember when I first read ATPH (my first Cormac novel and was struck on the first page by sentences like:
    ‘In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase.’
    And I was hooked from there on!

  2. good post. makes a writer think. the part about Cheever is interesting, as i sometimes wrestle with the balance between language and plot. sometimes i enjoy books much more for the former, I’ll admit. The first 2 examples make me contemplate adjective use, line length, and rhythm. I don’t think the combination of these is a science, so much as a feeling- leaving the reader with a specific feeling too.

    • Agreed. I was reading Douglas Bauer’s “Stuff of Fiction” last night and he has a whole chapter on sentences. He offers good advice on achieving that feeling. I’ll probably put up another post on this topic.

  3. Pingback: Sentences Are the Pack Mules of Literature | Text Heavy | Tracy Staedter

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