The Music of Language

A friend recently sent me a note along with a quote. “This is you,” she said, and the quote was this:

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make. ~Truman Capote

She’s right; I love the sound of words. And I love finding new ones, like the one I discovered last week via Wordsmith:

quaggy (KWAG-ee) adjective Marshy; flabby; spongy. [From quag (marsh), of unknown origin.]

And how can you not like:

embrangle (em-BRANG-guhl) vert tr. To embroil or entangle. [From en- + brangle (to shake), from French branler (to shake).]

Embrangle sounds like something I’d make up. But more than fun-sounding words, I love beautiful ones like lambent, gloaming and kismet (my puppy’s name!).

Is it just me? Can the words you choose help make you an unboxed writer? Maybe…

I sat in on a workshop session with Judith Ivory some years back, and she mentioned that she keeps unusual words she falls for in a notebook so that she can pull them out and use them in her writing. She’s certainly unboxed. One fan once told her that it took a long time to get through Ivory’s books because they weren’t skimmable; there were just so many words and phrases requiring thought. “Good,” said Ivory, “then you’re getting your money’s worth.”

The notebook is a great idea, and I’ve adopted it somewhat by keeping a file of favorite words that I receive through Wordsmith. Like Capote, for me, it’s all about the sound, the music the word makes. It’s why I like quaggy; a fun-sounding word; a word a quirky character might use. It’s a keeper.

Here’s a compilation of others’ picks for beautiful words (I’m stealing this verbatim from a site called A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia): Wilfred Funk’s list of the most beautiful words in English: ASPHODEL, FAWN, DAWN, CHALICE, ANEMONE, TRANQUIL, HUSH, GOLDEN, HALCYON, CAMELLIA, BOBOLINK, THRUSH, CHIMES, MURMURING, LULLABY, LUMINOUS, DAMASK, CERULEAN, MELODY, MARIGOLD, JONQUIL, ORIOLE, TENDRIL, MYRRH, MIGNONETTE, GOSSAMER, ALYSSEUM, MIST, OLEANDER, AMARYLLIS, ROSEMARY. [Alysseum may be a misspelling of alyssum, but this is how the word appears in Paul Dickson’s Words.]

In the same poll, other American writers, poets, and critics responded with these selections: HOME (Lowell Thomas), CHATTANOOGA (Irvin S. Cobb), MELODY (Charles Swain Thomas), NOBILITY (Stephen D. Wise), VERMILLION (Lew Sarett), GRACIOUS (Bess Streeter Aldrich), PAVEMENT (Arnold Bennett), LOVELY (George Balch Nevin), HARBORS OF MEMORY (William McFee), and NEVERMORE (Elias Lieberman). Louis Untermeyer responded, “The most musical words seem to be those containing the letter ‘l’. I think, offhand, of such words as VIOLET, LAKE, LAUGHTER, WILLOW, LOVELY, and other such limpid and liquid syllables” [Charles Turner].

According to James Joyce, CUSPIDOR is the most beautiful word in English [Dickson].

In A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (page 86), Annie Dillard writes: “My friend Rosanne Coggeshall, the poet, says that ‘sycamore’ is the most intrinsically beautiful word in English” [Sarah Gossett].

A survey conducted in 2004 by the British Council which asked more than 40,000 people around the world to rank the most beautiful words among a list of 70 words found MOTHER first, followed by PASSION, SMILE, LOVE, and ETERNITY [Charles Turner]. According to reporter, editor, writer, and author Willard R. Espy, the ten most beautiful words in the English language are GONORRHEA, GOSSAMER, LULLABY, MEANDERING, MELLIFLUOUS, MURMURING, ONOMATOPOEIA, SHENANDOAH, SUMMER AFTERNOON, WISTERIA [The Book of Lists 2 (1980)].

Okay, Therese here, because I can’t help but interject…Gonorrhea? Bleh. Onward… In a 2005 column in the New York Times, James Gorman wrote that he was infatuated with the word AMYGDALA. “I like its sound, you might say its musicality” [Robert Brown].

And here, the opposite end of the spectrum: The ten worst-sounding words in English, according to a poll by the National Association of Teachers of Speech in August, 1946: CACOPHONY, CRUNCH, FLATULENT, GRIPE, JAZZ, PHLEGMATIC, PLUMP, PLUTOCRAT, SAP, and TREACHERY. Of course, the word flatulent would be on the teachers’ list. Hee. Can a writer go to far with great words? Hell, yeah. If you haven’t already, you MUST read Paperback Writer’s hilarious post Thesauritis; just be sure you’re not eating or drinking anything while you do.

Write on!



About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    Therese and Kathleen,

    You are both brilliant, interesting writers. I love starting out each day with a nice cup of tea and reading what you have posted for the day. Sometimes I even come back and read it again, just to make sure I do not miss anything. Thank you for this wonderful blog. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for both of you and “Writer Unboxed”

  2. says

    That’s funny – I like the way jazz sounds. It sounds smooth with a bit of spice thrown on the end.

    I’ve always been partial to the word DISCOMBOBULATED. ;-)

  3. says

    AAWWW, Cathy J., I just about puddled up. That’s about the nicest compliment we’ve gotten and you’ve made my day, thank you!

    As for words, I get fixated on a few and find them all over my MS. I then have to go through and ruthlessly kill all but one, because a great word should stand alone.

    BUMBLE, ULULATE/UNDULATE, those are my current favs.

  4. says

    i love bumble too. my long time favorite word “charade” (pronounced sha rod). in terms of plant words i love artemesia, anemone, cleome. i also love the word ‘clever’ – an accurate description of WU!!!

  5. says

    Thanks, Cathy J. The first thing the future holds for us is a switch-over to a new site; stay tuned!

    Melissa and Kath, I like discombobulated and bumble, too. They’re both super-fun words to say. And I like jazz (the word and the music!) also.

    Ooh, I like the plant words, Thea. Artemesia. Nice.

    Gloamy is a good one, Karin! As for building that vocab, feel free to check back with our site; we post the word-of-the-day here. There’s a separate word-of-the-day email you can receive (different words) through

    Words are undeniably splendiferous. Even made-up ones. ;)

  6. says

    Gloamy Cleome woke up discombobulated. The sound of jazz music playing outside her window caused her to undulate beneath the light summer coverlet. A light but consistent hum bounced around the room. Peeking out from under her pillow she saw the plump little honey bee, no doubt flush with nectar, trying to escape the room it inadvertantly bumbled into. Staggering out of her comfy bed she went to the corner and got out her butterfly net, scooping up the bee on its next fly by. Leaning out the window, she released it. ‘bee happy’ she whispered as it buzzed its way home.